“A pub in Tel Aviv,” I type into a fresh document that has been staring at me like a pristine canvas stretched in its wooden frame. Though it’s Friday night, a popular evening for the locals to go out, it’s only six o’clock, and save for a handful of customers the place is empty.
There is something informal, almost improvised in the local pub scene. I scrutinise my surroundings, trying to pinpoint the causes for this vague notion. It might be the unassuming furniture. Yes, that and the casual atmosphere. Take for example the young man with tight braids raining down from his head like the supple branches of a willow tree. Straddled on his stool as if horse riding, he nonchalantly angles himself toward an older gentleman two stools to his left, who is slowly imbibing his beer with a gaze fixed on the large plasma screen. Now the older man turns toward his new mate and a chat ensues.
My eyes wander to the door through which another man, in tandem with a thin and long-limbed woman, a headscarf tied over her short hair, walks in and stops by the dreadlocks guy. The two greet each other in a ritual of arms and palms, Dreadlocks introduces the newcomers to his freshly gained pal, and all four move to a table near me—uncomfortably near—and so my eyes travel back to the bar, where I find an additional point of distinction: the bottle display is not crammed full, as if the booze is just an excuse for a social gathering. In Europe and the U.S. the shelves overflow with alcohol, and the patrons usually keep to themselves. Common to pubs everywhere, a pleasant wave of wood and hops reaches my nostrils, awakens my taste buds.
“Nice computer!” I am startled out of my ruminations by a young woman who plants herself in the chair beside me, eying my laptop. A bright smile illuminates her face from within, and her ebony curls fall onto the table in long strands, spreading a rush of flowery perfume. The white summer dress shines against her dark skin. No jewellery or make up, and none are needed; she wears her youth and effervescent demeanour like diamonds. I push away my envy.
“I want to get one just like that,” she conveys, “but they’re crazy expensive.”
“They’re not cheap,” I reply.
“Your keyboard has English characters,” she realises. “You got it abroad?”
“Yes, I live abroad.”
“Oh, lucky you!” she says, then adds without extending her hand, “I’m Maya.”
I introduce myself as well.
“I really like your laptop,” she repeats and leans in, peering over my shoulder. “Oh, wait, you’re writing our chat, translating it from Hebrew to English.”
She leans back in her chair, a thin crease forms on her brow. “But why?”
“It’s a writing exercise, to sit in a public space, describe what I see and, record conversations I have or overhear.”
“Oh, cool,” she says with a smileless nod, clearly baffled.
“I’m a creative writing student,” I explain, “practicing during summer vacation so I won’t get rusty.”
“Ah, okay, I get it.” She glances around. “What’s to write about here? Not very interesting.”
“I would love to write about you,” I say in the soft tone of invitation.
“Really?” A spark is lit in her dark brown eyes, and her curls bounce a little. “Let me get us some drinks, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” She hesitates. “Well, almost anything,” she adds with a blush.
She points at my empty glass, asking, “What are you having?”
“That was Diet Sprite,” I admit, sensing she won’t approve of my virgin beverage.
“How about some beer?” she asks, I nod, and she adds with a simper, looking pleased with herself, “On the house, the barman is my boyfriend.”
I follow Maya with my eyes. The bartender’s face shines when he notices her at the counter. He’s a tall man, probably a few years older than her, with a light brown ponytail brushing his nape, and a slightly receding hairline. His blue tank top—another noted difference between pubs here and elsewhere—reveals a large tattoo adorning his right shoulder: flower, butterfly? I can’t tell from this distance.
With smooth and flowing gestures he seems at ease with himself and his surroundings. Handing Maya two spume-dripping pints he brims at her the way boyfriends smile at their girlfriends, with that sweetness on their lips and tenderness in their eyes, and she sends him an air-kiss in return.
“Guinness!” Maya announces, banging the glasses on the table. “I like my beer dark and strong, like my men,” she adds with a giggle.
I smile as if it is the first time I’ve ever heard this phrase.
She takes a swig from her glass, sweeps the foamy moustache off her upper lip with the back of her hand, and says, “So, what do you want to know?”
“Anything,” I answer, eyeing my beer; the last time I had a Guinness I woke up with a throbbing hangover the following morning.
“Well,” she opens and pulls herself up in the chair; her shoulders push back, and her chin lifts up a smidgen higher. “I’m about to finish my army service in a week. In fact, I’m on my discharge vacation.”
“What do you … what did you do in the army?”
“I served in the Air Force,” she says, looking at me as if to examine my reaction, then goes on in a speedy flow of excitement, which my fingers cannot follow, describing the thrills of working alongside pilots in a squadron’s operations-room.
When she breaks for a breath I get a chance to say, “That’s remarkable! It was a long time ago, but I too was an operations-room sergeant in a squadron. I’ve actually started writing a memoir about my time in the army, and maybe—“
“Seriously?” she asks with widening eyes.
“Well, so far I just sketched an outline, but—“
“No, I mean, did you really serve as an operations-room sergeant?”
The air seems to be seeping out of her. She hugs her beer with both hands, eyes lowered. “Well,” Maya says, her voice just above whisper. “I wasn’t exactly what I just said.”
“I’m sorry … you seemed … so interested, and I wanted to give you a good story. Nobody is ever interested in me.”
“The guy in the bar is,” I remind her.
“We’ve been dating for only a month,” she says in slight dismissal, glancing in his direction. “They’re always excited in the beginning, aren’t they?” I murmur in sympathy, and she looks at me with doe-like eyes. “But you, you were interested in me, know what I mean?”
“Yes, I think I do,” I say.
“Just for the record,” she says with an index finger pointing up, “I did serve in the Air Force in some boring office.”
“Okay. And just for the record, being an operations-room sergeant isn’t as glorious as one might imagine. It was mostly clerical work, and the pilots were outright annoying. But why won’t you tell me something else, like where you live?”
A tentative smile spreads on her lips, then quickly shifts to a playful smirk. “Can I tell you where I want to live?” she asks.
“Sure.” I know people’s fantasies are just as telling as their biography, and often more.
With head tilted sideways, eyes half-closed, she says, “North Tel Aviv, looking at the Mediterranean from a penthouse in one of those fancy tower apartment buildings; every morning I wake up, open the windows, breathe the beautiful smell of the sea, listen to the seagulls, catch some sunshine, and feel super happy.”
“I doubt all those who live in expensive towers are happy,” I comment, disappointed with her cliché choice of accommodation. “But why won’t you tell me where you’re actually from? I bet it’s far more interesting.”
Maya shrugs, looking a tad deflated again. “I bet it isn’t,” she slices out the words through her teeth. “South Tel Aviv, where all the Africans live.”
The resentful way she pronounces “Africans” makes me cringe; I dread where this conversation might lead, though her reply also piques my curiosity.
“I read a lot about that situation,” I say with the lightest tone I can muster. “I’d be happy to hear about it from a local.”
“It’s awful,” she grumbles. Her shoulders droop. Her face turns sombre. “I know you can find them all over the city, even sleeping in parks, but many of them live in my neighbourhood, which wasn’t great before they came, and now it’s even worse, much worse.” She draws a deep breath and takes a mouthful of beer, neglecting to wipe the foam off her lips.
“You know,” she carries on, “we live in slums, houses falling apart, lots of folks unemployed, some kids go to bed hungry. We just don’t need those Africans, they’re not our problem, even if they had it bad wherever they came from, and most of them aren’t refugees as they claim, they just want to find jobs, but we were born here, we deserve the jobs, not them.” She briefly pauses for air. “Not to mention all the assaults on women that’s been happening. My parents always call me when I’m out in the evening to make sure I’m okay, and they send one of my brothers to fetch me like I’m a little girl. Those people illegally come into our country and then attack us?” She shakes her head. “No, no, they should go back to where they came from!”
Oh my, she is as I feared. Though her views are not uncommon in this neck of the woods, it is my first time to converse with someone from her camp. Ironically, during Israel’s early days droves of Jews were brought here from Muslim counties, and Maya’s family was most likely among them. Alas, as soon as these Sephardic Jews arrived in the Holy Land the dominant population of East European Jews perceived them as culturally inferior and even a safety threat. I wonder if my grandfather, who emigrated from Romania in the early 1930s, was among the discriminators.
Maya gulps the rest of her beer. I take a hesitant sip from mine while she signals to her boyfriend, who appears at our table with a generous smile, a fresh pint of Guinness for Maya, and a friendly nod for me. I somehow get the impression he isn’t the talkative type, but being a bartender he’s probably a good listener. I take another swallow while I wait for Maya to continue, surprised to find myself enjoying the beer’s rich heaviness with a hint of coffee flavour. Maya sinks into thought, and I give my fingers a break. Besides, nothing she is saying is new to me. I resist my desire to reply to her accusations and remind her that only about a handful of those Africans were found guilty of sexual assault, which is a relatively small number for a population of tens of thousands. But I hold my tongue and keep a straight face. I invited her to tell me her story, not to enter an argument.
“Sorry, I … I was …” Maya finally says. “I was thinking about Baby Kako, the …“
She stares into space again.
“Yes, I know about her,” I say, and on intuition ask, “Are you familiar with the family?”
“Well, that’s the thing. They live just two streets away from us, but I never noticed them until … how terrible … what kind of monster stabs a baby in the head with scissors, and only because she’s black? Thank goodness she didn’t die, but she will never …”
Her eyes glisten with tears as her voice fades away, and she falls silent again, face crinkling in thought. She snatches a single lock of hair, coils it around her finger, and just as absentmindedly uncoils the long curl and sets it free. She hasn’t touched her second beer yet; the thick milky froth at the crown of her glass is firm, the white and the dark holding each other in balance.
“They say the man who did it is crazy, but I don’t know,” Maya says when she regains her composure. “There was so much talk against the Africans, even people from the government came to the neighbourhood and said terrible things about them. So maybe that man is insane, but he turned his craziness to that baby after he heard all that talk. He did say to the police he wanted to kill a black baby, didn’t he? That’s what I personally believe, but I keep it to myself. People in my neighbourhood don’t like to hear anything nice about our black neighbours.” She sighs. “That’s just the way it is, what can I do? We are squashed from all sides.” She pauses before adding, “Just like them.”
Surprised with this U-turn, I dare ask, “Would you consider helping them somehow?”
“I don’t know, probably not. My family won’t approve of it, anyway.”
I say I understand, and thank her for sharing her story. She swills down her Guinness and returns the empty glass gently to the table.
“Well,” she says and gets to her feet, “I gotta go, but it was nice talking to you and good luck with that army book.”
I wish her the best of luck with civilian life; she thanks me with a mock salute that sends her ringlets frolicking, and slips into the gathering darkness outside.
After Maya leaves I drink some more of my beer, hoping I won’t regret it tomorrow, and think about the demographic shifts in Israel since I had left in the early ‘90s.
Having grown up here during the ‘70s, the only black people I knew of were American NBA players recruited by Israeli basketball teams. These extraordinary athletes boosted our national pride and were naturally admired. In fact, one of them lived on my street and was the only black man I had met as a child. He was married to an Israeli woman, and they had a daughter who was a little younger than me. With her golden-brown complexion and a wave of soft Afro the colour of café au lait, she was unusual-looking, but as far as I can recall the neighbourhood kids didn’t treat her any differently. I was curious about her, but kept a shy distance.
From 2006, until very recently, about sixty thousand undocumented Africans, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, had entered Israel by way of the Sinai Desert, often falling victim to cruel smugglers. By and large Israeli authorities have been regarding them as infiltrators, and refuse to consider the vast majority of their asylum requests. More recently, a few thousands have been confined to a detention camp in the depths of the Negev Desert.
The pub, by now teeming with chattering folks, has turned stuffy. I tuck a tip under my half empty glass, click shut my laptop, slip it into the backpack, and walk out to the refreshing dusk outside, marvelling at the magenta-tinted sky peeking between heads of buildings.
I round the corner, enter Rothschild Boulevard, and amble along its sandy central strip lined with ficus trees, shikma in Hebrew. The long arms of entwined branches hold up crowns of green bouquets; the curly canopy of the old trees a fresh breath of air in this dense city. I move my fingers on a heavily veined trunk; the ropes pipe up and around toward the boughs, their skin smooth and cool against my skin. A feeble breeze plays with the treetops’ leaves. Crickets serenade with their seductive tunes in the bushes. Farther down, random clusters of concrete picnic-tables with no diners, and a fenced pond, rich with green as if transplanted from a different landscape, houses well-fed goldfish.
Beyond the ficus trees, along either side of the street, refurbished Bauhaus buildings stand proud; some are elegant, others flashy. Named The White City, Tel Aviv, other than this area, is rather grey. Yet with these gorgeous residencies, the city has been reinventing itself. Alas, rendered unaffordable for most locals, these abodes are mostly owned by wealthy foreigners who reside here only partially. The spacious rooms are vacant more often than not; the sizeable windows remain shut.
But not all of this street’s early 20th century architecture has been restored: some buildings are tarnished with car fumes; others have their crumbling walls covered with graffiti. A worn out awning shields a grimy second story porch.
The posh and the fatigued live shoulder to shoulder.
It’s no coincidence the social justice movement has sprouted right here during the summer of 2011, choosing the French Revolution’s emblematic date of 14 July to mark its kick off. Though the municipal authorities had dismantled the movement’s encampment a few short months after its inception, now, three years later, the ghosts of that community are anything but gone.
As I snail down the lane, the shadowy outline of that long-gone tent city rises in my path. I hear fragments of heated discussions—accompanied by energetic hand gestures—in the improvised living rooms, sofas and all, scattered under the trees. Traces of hope and rage, mixed with smells of sweat and outdoor cooking, move in the air in flashing waves.
Among the inhabitants were residents of South Tel Aviv, demanding improvement to their forsaken neighbourhood.
The bitter echoes of the dismay that followed this remarkable summer reverberate along the avenue, and far beyond, to this day. A probable correlation between the Occupy Movement in the U.S. and this Israeli movement had been pointed out. The latter most likely inspired the former, as it preceded it.
I see him before he notices me, sitting on a bench, his long legs stretched forward. I let go of my backpack’s left strap, hug the bag with my right arm, and glance around. Rotten luck, nobody’s anywhere near. I could turn around, or cut into a side street … no, that might prove counterproductive. Well, I’ll just put on my combatant demeanour. As Maya mentioned, you can see them everywhere around the city, so no big deal, just keep a steady pace.
As I pass him, I realise he is looking at me, and my eyes can’t help but meet his. I issue a tiny smile and keep walking, hoping my steps seem poised.
“You Israelis think we Africans bad people,” I hear him complain behind my back.
I stop and slowly swing around.
“I beg your pardon?” I say.
“You hear me,” he replies, turning his face away from me.
“Well, I don’t know you, but I don’t think you’re a bad person,” I say.
He nods with exaggerated motions. “You do, you do, all of you.”
“No, really, I don’t.” I take a step in his direction. “Look, I know about all the trouble your people have been going through. I read about it in the newspaper all the time, and I’m really sorry. I wish it was different, you don’t deserve to be treated like that.”
“If you care, you tell government,” he says in disdain with his face still turned away.
“Right, the government,” I sneer. “If only they had ears.”
His eyes meet mine again; I see a hint of amusement in the corners of his mouth.
I take a step forward, saying, “It’s not an easy country, you know. Even for Israelis.”
“Better than my country,” he mutters, then asks, “You no like it here?”
I suppose for him Israel is a version of the Promised Land.
“Well, I don’t live here, I’m just visiting,” I reply.
His brow springs up. “Where you live?”
His face softens as he gets up from the bench. Glancing at my left hand, he grins.
Caught off guard I say, “No.”
“Ah,” he exclaims, his eyes glimmer with warmth, then narrow when he inquires, “boyfriend?”
“Eh … well …” Hesitant to lie, I search for an elegant way out.
”You marry me and take me to America,” he announces, taking a confident step forward. “I make you very happy.”
I observe him more closely. Not a bad looking guy: pleasant features, broad shoulders, and that smooth coffee-tinted skin. I could be his Stella, and he will bring back my groove. Well, he’s not that much younger, but he probably has some groove for me, even if it lasts no more than five minutes.
He looks at me and his face gives off fumes of fondness. He takes another step forward.
“I’m a lesbian,” I hear myself declare as I flinch back, embarrassed for my false statement, yet relieved to have found an exit.
His face freezes for a brief moment, then twists into revulsion.
“I no marry you!” he spits the words at me, his arm slicing through the air as if pushing me away. “You be shame to yourself!”
Feeling obliged to defend my declaration for the sake of those it represents, I say, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay, it’s perfectly normal.”
“No, no normal,” he retorts. “The Bible says—“
“I know what the Bible says!” I cannot help but cut him off, my voice sharper than intended. “Do you really want to live by the Bible? You might not like all the rules and regulation in that book, you know.”
But the exchange is clearly over; he flounces himself around and slumps into the bench facing up street. I walk away feeling ill at ease though uncertain as for what I could have done better.
“You’re hungry?” I hear a woman’s voice behind me as I slow down to admire a particularly veined tree about ten steps from the bench. “Here’s twenty shekel for some food.”
“I no beggar,” the African’s voice rise in indignation.
Unable to resist the temptation, I stand in the tree’s deep shadows and eavesdrop.
“I just want to help,” she mutters.
“We want job, no donation!”
“I know,” her voice turns gloomy. “I participate in the demonstrations for the asylum seekers, I volunteer with the refugee kids. I’m sorry things aren’t working out as we hoped.”
“Is okay.” His voice is softer now. “You are good woman, is okay.”
“I wish you the best of luck,” she says. “Really.”
“Thank you,” he replies, and then suddenly asks, “You live in America?”
“No, I live here, in Tel Aviv.” She sounds surprised.
“Ah,” he utters in disappointment, then says, “But you no lesbian, right?”
With a hand tight on my mouth to stifle a chortle, I scurry off, sorry to miss the rest of the encounter. I’m still grinning when I reach the borrowed car at the bottom of the leafy avenue, already missing this vivacious city.