+972 Magazine » Yuval Ben-Ami http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Tue, 01 Sep 2015 13:19:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 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.  

For other nights click here.

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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.”

Ubuntu

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.

For other nights click here.

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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.

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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

“What?”

“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.

Guys

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.”

“Shit!”

“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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Seven Nights 1: The Stabbing http://972mag.com/seven-nights-part-one-the-stabbing/109700/ http://972mag.com/seven-nights-part-one-the-stabbing/109700/#comments Tue, 04 Aug 2015 13:14:27 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=109700 The plan was to write a leisurely travel journal: a record of Canaan’s summer nights, but the journey began with a dark event: a stabbing at Jerusalem pride, and took on a different nature. Welcome to a seven-part, nocturnal diary of shock and recovery, a true story from an emotional land.

For other nights click here.

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The plan is simple: I will only write about things that happened after dark. Still, I must begin with something that happened at dusk.

It was 6:30 p.m. or so and we were walking in central West Jerusalem when six people got stabbed right before our eyes. It wasn’t anything you wouldn’t expect. We were marching as part of Jerusalem’s LGBT pride march. In a city this conservative, every such march is met with threats, We heard them spoken through megaphones on our way over: “You perverts are not wanted here. It’s bad enough that you show yourselves in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is sacred, stay away.”

I was in drag. I’m both proud and sad to be Israel’s only publicly-out crossdresser. I march in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s Prides, hoping to inspire others who are like me to feel less ashamed, less afraid. I have overcome fear of ridicule, but now fear came back in the shape of a knife. We were close enough to see people scattering and hear the screams, and see the victims lying on the road. When the police motioned for us to move on, we walked by blood.

Soon we learned that “they” were in this case a single individual. The stabber, it was rumored, was the very same man who stabbed participants at Jerusalem Pride 10 years ago. Soon the rumor was confirmed. He was only three weeks out of prison, and the authorities somehow never bothered to check on his whereabouts on the evening in question. Six were wounded, one 16-year-old girl was in critical condition. The girl, named Shira Banki, has since succumbed to her wounds. We had witnessed a murder.

I want to be in Jerusalem

The police ushered us to the march’s end point: pleasant, easily secured “Liberty Bell Park”, which features a replica of Philadelphia’s icon. We sat on a bench with friends, all of us distraught and confused, and listened to the speakers fumble for words onstage. We were safe and in good company, but I felt restless. “Let’s get out of here,” I suggested to Ruthie, my partner, “I don’t want to be in a tolerant ghetto. I want to be in Jerusalem. I need to confront it.”

She was game. We went downtown and had soup and a salad at a small bistro. Everyone about us was perfectly cool with my attire. Unlike drag queens, who are theatrical and wish to be seen, crossdressers wish to be ignored: to be taken for actual women. This wish is seldom granted. Being particularly tall, I only “pass” to those at a certain distance from me. The bistro’s clientele knew I was somehow transgender and no one minded. That was nice, but wasn’t enough.

Jerusalem has three downtowns: a Palestinian downtown, a diverse Jewish-Israeli downtown, and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish downtown. We were dining in downtown number two, the one populated by “people like us.” The stabber, Yishai Schlissel, was ultra-Orthodox. I wanted to go into the ultra-Orthodox quarter. I wanted to make peace with ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem instantly, on the very same night.

Ruthie preferred to rejoin the march, which turned into a protest and was heading our way. We decided to split up and reunite within 40 minutes. By now darkness had fallen. The Holy Land diary, Seven Nights, begins here.

The outsider

I went down to Mea Shearim in drag. I was rather modest, but not quite in the Mea Shearim sense. Even if people did take me for a woman, I’d clearly be an outsider. Jerusalem’s most pious Jewish borough is famously intolerant of women who fail to meet the community’s modesty standards, as listed on many signs posted about the neighborhood. These are standards so strict that they even forbid long trousers. I pulled down my skirt as far as I could, out of respect and slight fear, but it still reached just above the knee.

Should I be detected as a man, well, then I would be stabbed, wouldn’t I? Maybe not. Maybe much of the talk of the neighborhood’s hostility is ultimately hate-mongering, just like that which caused Mr. Schlissel to attempt murders at Jerusalem Pride not once but twice.

Such was my experience in the past: the community, I learned, seeks respect and may demand it, but won’t bear fangs against outsiders strolling its streets. I now put Haredi Jerusalem to the ultimate test, and the same result came up. I walked through Meah Shearim, through streets large and small. Men and women straddled past me in their black coats and long skirts. No one bothered me, no one stared at me, no one harassed me, no one commented. This was what I needed. I was free from animosity. I was done.

Back in the “diverse Jewish” downtown, I met up with Ruthie, exhilarated. Around us was the protest. Rainbow flags flew high amidst chants denouncing hate and homophobia.

What matters most

We reached Zion square, where our group rubbed shoulders with a different one. On the square sat an ultra-Orthodox street musician, surrounded by his audience. He is a minor Jerusalem celebrity, nicknamed “Rabbi Tomer” and known for his tolerant ways. A famous YouTube clip shows him performing a duet with a Franciscan monk.

Encouraged by my Mea Shearim experience and Tomer’s reputation, I crossed over, stood not far from his black Yarmulke, long black beard and guitar, and sang along to the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav: “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and what matters most is to have no fear.”

Tomer spotted me. I stood too close for him to miss my masculine attributes. As the song ended he pointed at me. “I believe we have a representative from the march here,” he said into the microphone, “I am so glad you are with us and so sorry to hear of what happened. This is not our way. This is not the way of Judaism, we should respect everybody and never act violently.”

He then began to sing a prayer: “He who makes peace in the heavens, may he make peace upon us…” Young guys broke from the ring of spectators and came to dance with me. Others stepped over to express remorse for the stabbing. They were wearing yarmulkes. They were religious. Tomer went for a favorite hassidic tune with lyrics by Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, which we all sang together. He then dedicated “Stairway to Heaven” to me, saying: “It’s a song about a lady, and you are a lady.”

Yet no true lady would wait out the full 12 minutes of this serenade. I thanked Tomer from the bottom of my heart, blew him a kiss and moved on, to Tel Aviv. I was done. I had made peace with Jerusalem. It made peace with me. All it took was crossing over the lines. Ruthie and I drove back to Tel Aviv, encouraged. Within three minutes of walking down the street in our tolerant, liberal city, a secular stranger yelled a transphobic comment.

(Continued Here)

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The Israel-Palestine Lorde Project http://972mag.com/the-israel-palestine-lorde-project/105816/ http://972mag.com/the-israel-palestine-lorde-project/105816/#comments Mon, 27 Apr 2015 15:15:17 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=105816 Putting together an homage to your favorite singer is a trivial thing — if you live in a normal country.

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It started off as a simple enough idea: let’s make a musical tribute to Lorde, New Zealand’s young and upbeat singer-songwriter. I’m crazy about Lorde’s music, despite being nearly 40 years old and usually more of a Schubert enthusiast. I even found myself translating her songs into my native language, Hebrew.

My easygoing friend, Yaron Fishman, was game, and he’s a musical producer. Everything fit, and then I messed it up. I put politics into it, or rather, extracted the politics of simplicity.

I am an Israeli who works with Palestinians as equals, which is rare. (Typically we are the ones bossing them around.) This experience has taught me to see my country as home to at least two equally legitimate societies. If this is to be a local tribute, I told Yaron, we should find a translator into Arabic and a Palestinian singer. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

But it was. In the year 2015, society in the Holy Land is exceedingly polarized and the air is dense. Every word, spoken or sung, can be taken as a political statement. Our potential partners were scared off at first: either by the fear of being misunderstood or because they misunderstood us.

Thinking differently

As the journey evolved, I felt it was fascinating and decided to document. The result is “The Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries,” a 15-part online novella. It tells of how I desperately chased a Eurovision star to a dark desert clifftop, how I performed “Royals” to a Jerusalem hassid, and jammed on a bus with a pre-teen from Bethlehem. Lorde remaps the country from chapter to chapter, and countless issues arise: anti-Normalization, government-sanctioned racism, identity politics, what we hear when we hear each other’s languages and music and even how we look at a land like New Zealand.

The diaries take about an hour to read, and are probably the best thing I’ve written in English (I’m a Hebrew author by day). It is certainly the first thing I have ever illustrated (apologies). Thing is: at times I came close to accepting that the Diaries themselves would be the only final product, the only outcome of the project. I allowed myself to believe that the musical project had failed and had given way to a storytelling project. Then, just as I fully despaired, the concept changed.

Since Palestinian partners were so hard to find, I decided to turn the microphone on Israeli society: to lift the blanket of pretend homogeny and explore the identities and languages lying beneath the surface. If we treat ourselves honestly, would our neighbors not be more trusting? If we break up the strict binary, would joining the pieces not prove easier?

This proved to be a good move.

Here, then, is the dream fulfilled. It is “Buzzcut Season,” a five-song, Israeli-Palestinian tribute to the songs of Ella Yelich-O’Connor, six months in the making. Four of the covers are sung in languages common in Jewish-Israeli society. The fifth is in Arabic. Singing it is Palestinian Rasha Nahas, who is Lorde’s age, 18, and whose talent is luminous.

‘Royals’ in French. Cover by the Djamchid Sisters

First, Here are Shai-li and Eden Djamchid of Jerusalem, performing a dashing version of Lorde’s greatest hit to date.

Djamchid is a Persian name. I half expected the sisters to sing in their paternal ancestors’ Farsi, but they preferred their mother’s native French: the tongue of many a royal, many a pauper, and quite a few Israelis, whether of French or North African background. It was the official language around these parts during the times of the Crusades.

‘Yellow Flicker Beat’ in Russian. Cover by Diana Gern

Lorde composed this one for the soundtrack of the third “Hunger Games” movie. It is a monologue of latter day Artemis Katniss Everdeen, a rebellious tune.

Naturally, I expected the Palestinians to pick it up, but life is full of surprises. Translator Vlady Dvoyris snatched it and Pushkinized it magnificently. Russian is the native tongue of over 1 million Israelis, many of whom arrived here following the fall of the USSR.

‘Buzzcut Season’ in HebrewCover by Yuval Ben-Ami

Here is my own Hebrew version of my favorite Lorde song. The lyrics deal with escapism in a violent world and ring especially powerful in this country and in this language.

The style we picked is that of Israeli rock of the 90s: decisively European, yet with a Mideast-influenced guitar solo. I’m amazed at Yaron’s technical abilities. His studio is simply a living room filled with mics. We had to sample the drums from YouTube.

‘Team’ in Yiddish. Cover by The Technicalities

“Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams,” sings Lorde, and this would be a perfect description of the existential state of Yiddish enthusiasts: lovers of a dying language.

Shira Z. Carmel and Alon Diament make up Yiddish combo The Technicalities. They bring the brilliant “Team” to life in the tongue of European Jewry, a language we associate strongly with the elderly and the ultra-Orthodox.

‘Biting Down’ in Arabic. Cover by Rasha Nahas 

Biting Down is pretty much a Lorde B-side. It isn’t featured on her album “Pure Heroine,” but on the freebie EP, “The Love Club,” that preceded it. It’s strikingly rootsy and a bit darker than her other offerings.

Rasha Nahas of Haifa pulled this one apart and put it together according to her own vision, which is what I feel we should do with the entire system here and all our dysfunctions. Jamming together despite the barriers is a nice first step.

Thank you all for reading and listening. Here is a playlist for those wishing to enjoy the songs uninterrupted.

Many creative spirits have helped this be. Each Youtube video features musician credits, and other thanks (including a letter to Lorde) appear in chapter 15 of the Diaries.

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The Israel-Palestine Lorde Diaries, chapter 15: The love club http://972mag.com/the-israel-palestine-lorde-diaries-chapter-15-the-love-club/103454/ http://972mag.com/the-israel-palestine-lorde-diaries-chapter-15-the-love-club/103454/#comments Thu, 05 Mar 2015 10:38:59 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=103454 The final chapter, in which we make music.

Part 15 of 15. To read the rest of the series, click here.

The Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries 29

“Yuval, what is your time limit?” Khader asked me online.

There was a time limit. The spring’s succession of guided tours was supposed kick off in two weeks. Once that happened, I would have no more time. ”Why?”

“Because Rasha only comes back on March 23rd, and she really wants in.”

“Where is she now?”

“In the U.S., making friends with Uncle Sam”.

“Okay,” I wrote, “I’m going to talk to Yaron. Our deadline is March 7th, but I think we’ll stretch it for her. Listen,” I added, “I am really, really, really moved that you made contact with her and that she agreed to participate. She’s an amazing artist.”

Yaron was fine waiting. He is easy to appease. Ruthie and I walked over to his house that Wednesday for Shira’s session. She arrived with her husband, Alon, and his accordion. Together, they form the Yiddish duo “The Technicalities.” When the two of them entered, I realized that I had not seen Shira since the whole thing began, more than three months back, and who knows how much longer before that. She has been working the entire time on her countless endeavors.

“I have totally fallen in love with this song,” said the former Lorde-skeptic, which was nice to hear. She even kept referring to “Team” as “the song we all love.” “In essence, it’s an eighties song,” she said, “that’s why we all love it.”

This turned out to be untrue. Not everyone in the room loved “Team,” because not everyone knew it. Yaron staunchly refused to listen to any of the original tracks, put together by Lorde and Joel Little, so that he won’t be tempted to emulate them. It occurred to me that his first encounter with “Team” would be in Yiddish, the so-called dying language of European Jewry, the tongue of my grandparents and their gassed-to-death family members. Yiddish, the thick and sweet German brogue of folk tales and secret modern masterpieces, the tongue of Meah Shearim’s children, who seem to grow up in another era. Team, by Lorde, in Yiddish. This was kind of cool.

The following night was cooler still. Diana Gern, the Russian soprano, came to record “Yellow Flicker Beat”. I love all things Russian that are not politicians. Russian-Israelis were always the local subgroup with which I most easily connected. Over the years, my former-USSR chums have showed me “Hedgehog in the Fog“, fed me shuba and lent me “Moscow-Petushki.” They turned me into a proper Russophile. The nearest to the Lorde madness I experienced in recent years was losing it over Tchaikovsky.

Diana came with a delightful problem that is telling of Russian temperament. The title line, “red, orange yellow flicker beat / starting up my heart” was too beautiful in her eyes. She felt that the word “ognia” (“fire”, chosen by Vladi to stand in for “flicker”), deserved more room and asked if we would stretch the line to emphasize it. I preferred staying faithful to the original, and assured her that her natural passion would deliver all the beauty.

I got to play the guitar. I haven’t written much about the musical side of jamming with Yaron, but he is a bit of a Mr. Miagi. He will throw a mandolin at you and make you play it, or throw a word like “fermata” at you, forcing you to figure out what it means. I am so much more of a musician now than I was when we had that Malawach in November.

Final fence

Having turned off the mic, Yaron drove Diana and myself to the city center. I fell asleep content and woke up thrilled, caught up on all the writing and illustrating, then took a walk to the beach.

Part of the sand was dug out, for renovations of the promenade. That portion of the beach was fenced. Here was the westernmost fence of a land full of fences, walls and invisible boundaries. Some separate physical spaces, others seperate people, some are imposed on us, other we simply adopt. Some can be climbed, others bypassed. Some are impenetrable, but we never knows which, until we try, right?

Beyond this final barrier were the Holy Land’s final few steps, then the vast sea, and beyond it: Rasha, chatting with Uncle Sam. It would be an honor to wait for her, though I never expected a wait. In the end, nothing played out as I expected. Two Mizrahi girls contributed the project’s most European track. The one Palestinian-spirited song turned into a Russian ballad, while our Arabic track was an easygoing stoner hum.

If I learned anything about my country on this journey, it’s that it is never what we think it should be. We want for it to be Israel, and it isn’t quite that — or only that. We wish for it to be Palestine, and it isn’t quite that either. People come here with a certain god in mind, and are overwhelmed with the shrines of other faiths, or accidentally wind up at a BDSM club, or hope for the beach and get trapped in the snow.

When we realize things aren’t as we hoped, we come to the beach and look away, to the world, often to the west, hoping for good tidings that might stir change. It’s our natural position, and a good place to end this tale. But I cannot conclude without turning south-east, (though it is nearly the same distance facing south-west, by a wide arc) and sharing a few words.

Echo

Dear Ella,

Israelis are not best known for being polite. We often make fun of our own disregard for the words “please,” “sorry” and “thank you.”

Even now I will not use them all. There is nothing I could ask of you, so “please” is out. “Sorry”, on the other hand, you probably deserve. People around the world flaunt your name for whatever their weird causes are. It’s part of stardom, yet surely isn’t always fun. If I caused you any discomfort, I apologize.

Now the “thank you.” At its best, art makes us conscious of what was there to begin with. Yours made me conscious of your generation’s experience, of your native land, and of many less-easily articulated notions involving rhythm, rhyme and dance.

Poking my head into contemporary fandom, I also grew conscious of gossip and pettiness. I found great writing about your work, but so much talk of appearance and other trivial matters. I guess I hoped to counter that with some substance. My land is full of substance. All I needed to do was aim the loudspeaker to its hills and press play.

The hills returned an echo. I became more conscious also of what was here to begin with. Staying focused on this country’s realities and fighting the good wars (rather than the deadly ones), is impossible to do without good, authentic art. The art you and your creative partners bring the world is such. It helped me and my friends see all of it afresh, and perked all of us up a bit for what is yet to come. Thank you. We needed that.

Sincerely,

Yuval

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I’m also grateful to the brave editors of this series in its English form, Mike Schaeffer Omer-Man and Edo Konrad, and to everyone who gave a hand in any way, whether by playing the cello or suggesting Tamer. As for you, dearest readers: Thank you so much for coming along on this strange ride. The first songs are being mixed by Yaron as I write this, and more will pour in later. They will be published in a separate post. Till then, enjoy, and may peace and music reign wherever you are.

Update two months later: the separate post exists! mission accomplished! Enjoy Buzzcut Season

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Israel-Palestine Lorde Diaries, chapter 14: Not alone http://972mag.com/the-israel-palestine-lorde-diaries-chapter-14-not-alone/102191/ http://972mag.com/the-israel-palestine-lorde-diaries-chapter-14-not-alone/102191/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 12:50:31 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=102191 What can bring hope in times of weak spirit? How about a teardrop, a social network, a Russian soprano and a faithful ex-lover.

Part 14 of 15. To read the rest of the series, click here.

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The war never broke out in earnest, but my mood was not quick to recover. One thing did brighten things up, however: I was invited to speak on Radio New Zealand. Attentive producer Jeremy Rose caught sight of the very first post in this series and wrote me instantly. On the last night of January 31, 2015, which in New Zealand was the first morning of February, I spoke on air with host Wallace Chapman, scrambling for a way to describe my project. I was no longer sure what it was or where it was headed, if anywhere.

Kiwi radio turned out to offer a winning combination of British courteousness and South Pacific relaxation. The interview lasted a full half hour, which allowed us to discuss plenty of issues and complexities. It wasn’t enough, though; my spirit had not recovered. I fell behind on writing the posts, gave up on looking for a Yiddish translator, and ceased bugging Shai-li Jamchid about her mother’s French translation of Royals. I was exhausted. Can you blame me? The Lorde Project isn’t my first frustrating attempt at shaking things up in this land of perpetual struggle.

Take central Hebron. For ten years now I have been active in trying to open its streets to Palestinian pedestrians, some of whom live on those streets, and may only leave their homes through the rooftops. I offered free tours of the city’s settler-dominated center, and wrote and published pieces on the issue anywhere I could. Nothing changed. Over that same decade, my friends and  I have marched against imprisonment without trial, against deportation of children and arrest of children and in solidarity with all the groups dehumanized by the state, not to mention economic injustice. We have written posts and op-eds, tweets and banners, songs and theater plays.

In literally every field that matters to us, things have only deteriorated. With the waning of democracy in Israel, we are now framed as traitors. Hate speech is so out of control that we have become used to receiving death threats, garnished with wild references to sexual violence. We are used to it — but we’re exhausted.

Real life was too much. I picked up the guitar and played my extra melancholic version of Lorde’s “World Alone.” Then I went to the one place where I had any control: Facebook. In the inbox was a letter from a stranger, someone named Dana.

“Dear Yuval”

She wrote,

“We don’t know each other, but I follow you on Facebook, especially the Lorde in Israel-Palestine project, so I wanted to thank you for enormously improving my playlist. You enriched it not only with Lorde, but with Mira Awad, Mashrou Leila, and “Veha’er Eininu” done by a woman choir.”

I replied and we chatted. Then I got goosebumps. “Just so you know,” she wrote, “when I first heard your version of ‘Team,’ I cried.”

“Wow, thank you.” I replied, “You just made my day.”

“It was the day of the bus accident in Hura, and I was so sad. It was a catharsis and a reminder that others here believe in coexistence, so thank you.”

Hura is a Bedouin town in the south of Israel. I will refrain from depressing you with the details of that deadly manifestation of institutionalized racism. Just imagine the worst.

I thanked Dana again, and went to bed.

Biting down

We despair when we think we are alone. I was not alone. I was working with Yaron, and while I let go, he kept looking for translators. His friend Vladi converted “Yellow Flicker Beat” to Russian, the native language of over a million Israelis. Yaron even found a Russian singer. She warned that she is an opera soprano, and won’t be able to emulate Lorde’s warm alto. “It’s not about emulating,” Yaron told her.

I was not alone. Yael Levi, a scholar of Hassidic Judaism, took on the Yiddish “Team.” Yael is married to my friend Mikhael Manekin, the man who first showed me Hebron and its current, cruel state. The struggles combine.

I was not alone. The Jamchid sisters arrived at Yaron’s place one day, and recorded a resplendent version of “Royals.” It was only the second song we have recorded so far, and we were over three months into the project. But there was promise in all of this, and so much encouragement in Dana’s words. Back from the recording, I logged into to Facebook to reread them, and was suddenly hit with the realization that I am a nincompoop.

Facebook! I have all kinds of friends on Facebook, Georgian-Israeli, Swedish-Israeli, Brazilian-Israeli, Filipino migrant workers, friends who work with the African asylum seeker community and even one or two who belong to it. Why did I not publish the call for help here? Instead of deliberately picking the identities and languages, let’s throw the dice and see who volunteers.

So I posted, and within two minutes a response arrived: “I’ll do it,” wrote Deem Dar.

Deem! The Marmite girl!

I already learned that Deem was a Palestinian, and that her name was Deema. She offered to translate a song into Arabic. Arabic! Shame on me for being such a pessimist. Things kept coming together. Deema asked me to pick a song for her.

Too bad Vladi already took “Yellow Flicker Beat.” Mira Awad liked that song, and if I could just present her with a translation of that, she might change her mind. I could see why Mira would like the song, why anyone in tune with Palestinian realities would. It was composed for the third Hunger Games movie, a film that deals with the dilemmas that arise when resisting corrupt power. Many have compared images of destroyed District 12 to footage taken in Gaza last summer.

Let’s do it in both Russian and Arabic, I thought. If two nations can share a land, two languages can share a song. I sent it to Deema. She toyed with it, then wrote that it was too complicated. I sent her “White Teeth Teens,” one of my favorites, but that was complicated too. “Fine,” I wrote, “take this one, ‘Biting Down’ — it is only made up of six lines that repeat.”

“Biting Down” is structured in the fashion of a “cotton field ditty.” The line “it feels better biting down” repeats throughout it. Deema asked what it meant. I looked up interpretations online. “Someone suggests that it is about biting down to minimize pain,” I wrote her, “like when a soldier is given a strap of leather to bite on during a field amputation.”

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Deema’s world of associations was a tad less sinister. The following day she sent me a translation of the song with a focus on the virtues of cannabis. “الشعور احلى وانت مسطوله”. My Arabic, though atrocious, was good enough for this one: “It feels better being stoned.” I laughed, and asked her which professional singer would sing that on tape.

Deema referred me to Khader, her well connected co-translator. Khader said he would ask around, on the condition that I support a musical project launched by his Jewish ex. I thought back to my version of “Team,” and how the whole thing began with protest against Lehava and their attack on mixed relationships. I thought back to the Beyonce tribute, to singing “Irreplaceable” with Osnat and realizing how well angry ex-lovers can create together.

If that’s so, Israelis and Palestinians surely can. I promised Khader I would help. He got back to me in 20 minutes, saying that he got a “yes” from a great musician. He sent a clip, in which a young woman with long, dark curls, sings a beautiful sad song about a beautiful, sad land. I have heard that gritty voice before. She was Rasha, “The Arab Lorde.”

(Part 14 of 15. For more, click here, or join us on Facebook!)

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