Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Early evening observations: Tel Aviv

1. The wedding season is upon us. At least two couples encountered as you cycle down the boulevard, appropriately wrapped in white and black cellophane, made up, dressed up, they walk in front of the cameraman, who keeps shouting, directing every movement. The sister (best friend? bridesmaid?) tries to keep pace in high heels, some little smile of irony on her lips, perhaps, too short to tell: you're late already.

2. You notice tell-tales of gentrification behind the Shuk. A three-stage manoeuvre: first came the espresso bars, then the designer shops, now the car alarms.

3. Back from the Yemenite quarter, always walk up Rabbi Yisrael Najara street. Najara, Najara: I love this name so much, the j-and-r meeting on the tongue, tasty like tail-soup.

Monday, May 26, 2008


A 1947 film, "A portrait of Palestine", commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, ends with pictures of Tel Aviv beach; girls in swimsuits, playing "matkot" (beach paddleball). The narrator's tone is sober and ambivalent, the text is grand politics and history (...Jews claim Palestine as their ancient home... The Arabs have lived there for a thousand years... Palestine’s problem is whether these two kindred races can be reconciled to live and work together in peace...). Yet the images are optimism and sunshine: it's the beach, man. Surely something can be worked out. Now just sit back and watch the girls.

Much has changed since 1947 but Palestine's problem perhaps remained the same; and so, in some respects, did Tel Aviv's beach. It's still a good place to find some light-hearted optimism and to play matkot (u-tube). The shrill flight of the paddleball between racquets, the dull sound of the ball hitting the wood, this music is monotonous and hypnotic; the song of a leisured evening of a weekday, for those who have the time and are not in a hurry. Never a matkot player myself and always slightly worried about the direction of the ball, I distance myself from the players, watch their virtusity from afar, and then continue strolling southwards, as Jaffa turns pink.

The beach is long and sandy, usually clean and, except for weekends and holidays, never too crowded. There are some obvious drawbacks, like the ugly line of hotels guarding the seafront, or the hippies playing drums on Friday evenings. But it is such a great beach. Jaffa, towering above it and marking its southern end, provides the necessary contrasts; there are many of them.

My embrace of Tel Aviv's beach is never full and unreserved. I am a Jerusalemite, born on a mountain, unsure about long stretches that never end; too much skies, too much water. But leave aside pathos and identities. My real problem is different: it's the sand. I hate sand. In wrong moments for myself and the universe, dipping my toes deep into the sand can feel like scratching a wall with long nails. Just the thought of the yellow granular substance can make me close my fists, squint, and want to be elsewhere. But sand is soon everywhere, in my food, in my hair, in my clothes. When I let myself to be carried away with my sand-o-phobia I find the powdered soil blocking my thought process, my sentences end mid-air. It gives me the creeps. But then I relax, resume, and reconcile myself to the particles beneath my feet. It used to be much worse. I'm gradually learning to live with the stuff. There is a price to pay for sunsets.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A roar comes out of the neighbour's window. They're watching the English cup and "we", that is the Jewish people, that is Israel, that is Avram Grant, that is Chelsea, just scored a goal. On the guardian website I read it's 1-1.

I must admit Avram Grant's appointment as Chelsea manager filled me with a stupid patriotic pride. And I don't even watch football. But then there was this game on the eve of Holocaust memorial day, where he wore the yellow star-of-david (the one jews had to wear under the nazis) as a homage to his dead relatives or something. The picture of him jumping up and down full of joy with the yellow badge on his arm - this should be put on online dictionaries under "Distasteful".

Update 1:00am: We lost. The Gentiles (Man united) won. Outside my window I hear someone throwing up.

the shuttle taxi

On the shuttle taxi from Tel Aviv as usual a mixed crowd, four Jappanese people, a mother and a baby that looked Indian and spoke English, and an Ethiopean couple in their late 50s. As the minibus pulls away the couple take out invitation letters to a military ceremony, their son's graduation from some army course. They needed to be dropped off in the middle of the way, in Latrun, a big memorial site; they didn't really know where they were going. We were already on the Tel-Aviv Jerusalem highway.

I don't stop there, said the driver, there's no stop, its a highway. But we have to be there by ten, what shall we do, said the mother. Not my problem said the driver. I tried to intervene, saying there is an interchange in Latrun, it's no so difficult, you can get off the highway, drop them off, and then back on the road, it's not such a big detour. I'm not stopping, there's nowhere to stop, he reiterated, I drop you off near Jerusalem, you take a bus back, I don't care. The man turned to the woman, I told you so, you get on the taxi without asking first, he said in Hebrew, then continued in Ethiopean. She fell silent and turned her head away. The man continued his reproach in a subdued tone, proving again and again his retrospective wisdom. Between them I saw the bitter residues of a lifelong marriage, the helpless struggle with local ways which they do not fully understand.

The son called on the mobile phone; the father said Yonatan, where is this place we're going to, tell us where we have to go, switching between Hebrew and his native tongue. He passed the phone to the woman who first shrugged and refused to speak, then grabbed the phone, saying Yonatan my soul, we will be there, we are on the way.

They showed me the road directions they had, written in Hebrew which I was not sure they could read; a note in a rounded, childish handwriting, enumerating in an obscure language roads and buses. I realized they had left their home in the Galilee at 5.30 in the morning to get to the ceremony; now was 9.30, and they were going to be late. We were getting very near the interchange; I pointed it out to them. The woman pleaded the driver to stop. He shouted at them, I can't, there's police all over the place, if I stop I get a 1,000 Shekels fine, and then angrily pulled to the side of the road, and let them get off, as he turns to me, you told them there's a stop, there's no stop, people poke their noses into other people's business, and I have to pay the price.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


My friends N. and L. are visiting here at the moment. They went to Ramallah yesterday, and coming back to Jerusalem, they had to go through the checkpoint. What she described in her email is the sort of experiences of which I am generally exempt because of my master-race Israeli passport:

Unfuckingbelievable experience at the Ramallah checkpoint into Jerusalem...I know it's nothing you don't know already but honestly, these checkpoints, they're like cattle-processing sheds. I had been determined all along not to get all sentimental and righteous and Guardian-reader about it, but really, it is totally dehumanising and humiliating, the whole set up.

And then we heard the way one of the guards was talking to this young mum with a baby, you didn't have to understand Hebrew to know that he was being really rude and aggressive, everyone in the queue was looking at each other, but in a pretty resigned way. Then the turnstile goes and some people go through (nice touch that you don't know if it's going to let you through or not - it just seems to stop randomly).

I go through, Luke's left behind. As soon as I came to the window and saw the guards, I knew they were off their tits. Two of them, one behind each window. I show my passport to one, he points to the other window. I go to the other window and show my passport, he points to the other window. They do this to me a couple of times, giggling the whole time in that really stoned way. Pretty humiliating.

Then one of them (the nastier looking one who was rude to the young mum), who is almost slipping off his chair he is so fucked, asks if I'm from Thailand. WTF? I tell him, no I'm English. He starts getting aggressive with me. You kind of expect rudeness or arrogance from officials in this kind of situation, at least, it's not so surprising when they act like cocks, but this was a bit frightening cos he was obviously not in his right mind - a second ago, he'd been laughing, now he's getting really agressive, and there's a gun there, I'm not used to seeing guns.

He starts shouting at me for my visa and I tell him I don't need one, I'm British. He's going on about a visa so then I realise what he means and I show him the stamp in my passport. Then he relaxes a bit and starts telling me I look Japanese.??? I only realised afterwards: you know when we came towards you at the airport, and you said you could really see the Chinese in me? Well I think he was so stoned, or tripping, that he could *really* see the Chinese (or Thai..or Japanese..) in me and it was freaking him out or something. Finally, he let me go.

(N's family comes from a mixed Asian background but you would have to be stoned and ignorant to think she is either Thai or Japanese)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The past is a foreign country - that never existed

Resolved Question

Before the creation of Israel, was Palestine a recognized country?

Best Answer - Chosen by Voters

"No, there has never been a country called Palestine."

Here are some postcards from this never-never land:

The Palestine Archaeological Museum, a.k.a the Rockefeller Museum, opened in 1938 near the Old City of Jerusalem. Photographed on the week of Israel's 60th anniversary.

A poster to promote Tourism to Palestine, 1936. Designed by Franz Krausz, Jewish immigrant from Europe to Tel Aviv, for an advertising campaign aimed mainly at American Jews. Reclaimed in the 1990s by the Palestinian Authority.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

If you really feel like throwing up, have a look at the website of the "Tomorrow" conference in Jerusalem, in which the Israeli president is hosting a large number of the world's biggest pigs. It feels like a scene from Animal Farm.

Look at them, with their suits and dresses, with their elegant bodyguards, these people who cashed on the destruction of our planet, who helped to make life on earth hell for millions of people, see how they smile.

Usually I am the first to say that most leaders, however disgusting, are not the real villains, our problems are much bigger than the set of idiots on stage. It's still true but a bit of populism never hurt anyone. Liars! Thieves! Murderers! Your day will come! Tomorrow!

And now, I'll go out to catch the sunset in Tel Aviv's pretentious boulevard.

Olmert is an honest man

So says George W. Bush, who has just landed in Israel. With only a few months with Bush around, we should cherish these moments of light entertainment.

The latest Olmert story includes an American millioner and cash in unmarked envelopes (hundreds of thousands of dollars), directly into Olmert's hands. Why not? Cash in hand is the best, as every restraurant cleaner knows, and the more the merrier. Unlike former stories, this time the police have a strong card: Olmert's solicitor as a state witness. Somehow they got him to testify against his former client. The same day he decided to change loyalties, the solicitor was spotted by photographers standing in the middle of Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, completely lost. Crossing the lines can get you to dangerous places.

I like this picture.

Yes, Olmert is an honest man.

The first major Olmert scandal was in 1981, when he received an interest-free pay-when-you-have-the money US$ 50,000 'loan' from an obscure bank, whose archive strangely burnt down once the police investigation started. Since then he's done well, and there was a long list of dodgy deals in back rooms full of cigar smoke (corruption is never fun without the cigars). Olmert came clean so far of all accusations and indictments. He's good at this.

But Olmert is an honest man.

Try asking Israelis, and they will laugh in your face. Savvy, yes. Clever, perhaps. Cunning, no doubt. An honest man?

Anyway, it looks like this time they've got him.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Tel Aviv Snapshots

It's the sound of a violin orchestra, playing an upwards scale, long note after note, like in a murder mystery film, a crescendo whose climax is never reached. As usual with sounds, I cannot tell from where it is coming, but it repeats again and again, throughout the morning, the same sequence. Sitting in the balcony feels like a Fellini film.

He came with the flat, and his name is Fairuz. At first I was a bit taken aback by this naming of a grey male cat after the Arab world's ageing Diva, whose bell-sound voice singing 'the flower of cities' always comes to mind when I see Jerusalem's Old City after a long absence. His gender is wrong, I muttered when introduced.

But then I relaxed. We are all allowed some gender bending, and it is undeniable: his eyes are a very beautiful turquoise.

The ceramic floor tiles are the jewel in the crown of this 1930s block of flats. Very typical of old Tel Aviv, they are neither Berlin modernism nor Levant Orientalism, but somehow fit both, that strange melange that is the spirit of this city. The tiles come in two types: mustard yellow with black lines, like tiger skin, and white-black-red-green geometric patterns in the long corridor, a beautiful vista stretching before those who keep their toilet door open as they sit to contemplate.

In the morning the sunshine comes through the kitchen window and warms a patch of tiles in front of the sink; the right moment to wash the dishes.

We eat on small plastic table mats, to protect the wooden table from our olive-oil addiction. The usual resident of the flat bought these plastic mats in Nepal: one shows Katmandu sights, and the other features the royal family, King, Queen and three prnces, all slain in the 2001 palace attack defined in Wikipedia as a case of Fratricide, patricide, sororicide, regicide, matricide, mass murder, massacre, and suicide attack.

It is unnerving to put one's plate on murdered royals. Not even the Bolsheviks did that with Tsar Niccolai's family, I think. I find myself hyptonised by the concealed smile of her royal highness beautiful princess Shruti, and the uncanny innocence of her brother the boy prince Nirajan. Why we haven't put them away yet, this decor pieces of aristocratic horror, I do not quite know.

The kitchen's ceiling is disintegrating: little white pieces of paint and wall find their way to the stove, landing in our rice and lentils dishes, our chard and peppers stir-fry. I try to remember to keep the lid on; I like this decaying city, but not as part of my dinner.

For Tel Aviv, crumbling is a way of life. No matter how many layers of paint, how many plans of conservation and revival, the humid sea air will prevail. This is a city of fantasies, always have been - Art Deco orientalist palaces, Bauhous socialist blocks of flats, and nowadays millioners' tower blocks; but the moist breeze breathes salt on all of them, and Tel Aviv crumbles, immediately, continuously.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Jeursalem bus story

I got on the number 8 bus near outside the Shuk, the fruit and veg market, opposite the Ottoman municipal hospital. As I sat down I was struck by the shouting of the woman behind me, talking on her mobile phone.

"She's crazy I tell that woman, just nuts, absolutely insane. She said that about me? Her brain is scratched. Wo-w0-wo-wo-wo, if I meet her in the street, I don't evny her, what I'm going to do to her, she won't like it, wait a minute, Driver, Driver, that's Shlomi, my neighbour, open the door."

The bus was standing at the red traffic lights, a chubby 15-year old with braces knocked sheepishly on the bus doors. "Driver, driver, open the door, it's Shlomi, he works in the Civil Guard, he checks busses for suicide bombers, open the door for him". The driver hesitated for a minute and then opened the doors. Little Shlomi really didn't look like a security expert and I wondered if the woman was making it up. She continued on the phone:

"Yes in the shuk, I bought meat, and parsley, and the new garlic with the red skin, and pittas, gonna make kebabs for tomorrow. Independence Day right? And that lemon cake. What do you mean you don't know it?" She raised her voice even more. "You're not normal, you. Never made it? you're not normal. It's easy and cheap to make."

" Wo-wo-wo, that woman" she returned to her nemesis "that piece of rubbish, to speak of me like that, if I see her in the street, I'm just going to ignore her, yes, not say hello even. No, better, I'm going to call her what she is, ungrateful, that dry-eggplant-face. I walked in the snow to buy cigarettes for her. Ungrateful." Suddenly there was a strange silence. It seemed the conversation was cut off. She looked back and called for Shlomi to come and sit by her.

"Shlomi, how are you doing, you see he opened the doors for you, I told him to open the doors for you, I told him you work in the Civil Guard, that you are checking busses, he opened the door because I told him".
I'm not doing that anymore, said Shlomi, now I'm guarding the entertainment events for Independence Day. Many events tonight, and yesterday I was guarding the Foreign Office event".

I started to see little Shlomi with new eyes. Who knows if Israel would have reached 60 if not for him.

"How much do they pay you?" she asked.
"I volunteer, I don't get paid".
What do you mean? That's bad, bad, Shlomi, you have to work for money, volunteering is nonsense".
But the Civil Guard are all volunteers, he said, almost apologizing.
"Rubbish!" she exclaimed. "Oh, a blind man, a blind man! He is boarding the bus, Shlomi, quick we have to give him our seat" and they both disappeared.

Also boarding the bus was a big woman who sat opposite me, and for the rest of the trip I could smell very strongly the odours of a dead chicken from her plastic bag.

Monday, May 05, 2008

nation and capital

The plastic flag arrived as part of the weekend newspaper, courtesy of The Workers' Bank, the second largest bank in Israel . I opened the wrapping to see if they put their logo on the flag; they did, of course, albeit discretely, on the edge. Still noticeable. Of course, an advertisment capmaign is what it is, useless without brand characteristics.

The Workers' Bank was founded by the Zionist trade unions in Palestine in 1921, "to serve the interests of the Jewish working class". Jumping forward to 1983, the merry days of hyper-inflation, a bubbly stock exchange and the Lebanon War, the bank is nationalised by the government a minute before it goes bust. Fast forward again to the 1990s, the happier days of globalisation and the Oslo process, capitalism take 2, it is sold off to a Israeli-American billioner.

Money is the radical leveller that does away with all distinction, turns solid traditions to air and destroys borders, tells us Marx. But capitalism and nationalism, although ultimately at odds with one another, always found temporary living arrangements allowing mutual advantages. National trade barriers may be bad for business, but nationalist sentiments are good, as they provide many themes for hard-working copywriters. Patriotism sells.

The Workers' Bank flag is benign compared with the sticker issued by its main competitor - the National Bank - during the 2006 Lebanon War. "We Will Win" said the sticker, in the bank's recognisable corporate graphic style - good taste prvented them from putting their logo on it. Just imagine, "The Lebanon War - brought to you by Israel's leading bank, also offering you highly attractive loans". The sticker was distributed through the weekend papers a week after the war started. It borrowed its highly original moto from a speech by the prime minister.

These "we will win" stickers are very rare to come by now; they were peeled off cars' bumpers quickly after the war ended, when it became clear that we lost, or not really won, or were not really sure what winning meant in the first place. The bank, in any case, lost US$ 0.5 million on this advertisment fiasco. One should choose more carefully the right war to cheer.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Today, in Tel Aviv's Karmel market, we were buying a small teapot to serve us in the coming month. The vendor packed it into a small box. 'Enjoy it' she said, 'and a happy holiday to you. It's a festival this week you know!' she said with a big smile. 'Our day of independence! Come on, translate for her' she said, as she realized F. can't speak Hebrew. 'Our festival!'.

She was the first person I met so far to express a simple, straightforward joy about this Independence Day. Not that you could be blind to the fact it's coming. There are flags everywhere, small plastic flags as giveaway presents in the newspapers, courtesy of Israel's leading bank, huge electric-lit flags on Tel Aviv's skyscrappers. It's Israel's 60th birthday. Haven't your heard? Bush, Sarkozy and Merkel are all coming to blow off the candles.

Yes it's hard to miss the orchestrated national jubiliation. As the city wears flags and posters, the radio and television bombs us with upbeat nostalgia. The celebration is a patriotic duty; and there is something antagonistic about it, an act of defiance of a long list of enemies, adverseries, and anyone who refuses to accept the complete rightousness of Israel and its most moral army in the world. Perhaps it is the nature of nationalistic holidays; perhaps it is worse here.

But this is what I liked about the vendor today, her joy seemed almost naive, and it was certainly not antagonistic, not directed against anyone. I don't know what's her personal story, but I know that for many people who immigrated here Israel was and still is - despite everything - a kind of a miracle that made their life possible. That they don't see that this independence meant the continuous and ongoing destruction of another people is a different matter.