Tell the truth… (about sectarianism)

(This short story was initially published in the Haifa Arabic weekly Al-Madina on September 14, 2018. You can find the original Arabic text in Haifa Al-Hura.)

May 22, 2017 was a special day. We attended another session of the detention court for poet Dareen Tatour. The Court again rejected the request for the abolition of the house arrest imposed on Dareen, which lasted more than two and a half years until she was sentenced to imprisonment for 5 months and was returned to prison. On this special day, however, the court allowed Dareen to leave her family home in Reineh, the location of her house arrest, for several hours each day, provided she was accompanied by “qualified guards” from her family. On this occasion, to make use of the new crack in the wall for breathing freedom, Dareen and her companions did not return home after the hearing. But, for the first time since her arrest more than a year and a half before, she started wandering the streets of her beloved city, Nazareth, and we were wandering with her.

In this short passage, written more than a year later, I do not want to write another chapter in the famous story of the trial of the poet Tatour. But I want to touch on a passing conversation that took place during our tour of the streets of Nazareth. It touched an exposed nerve and its complex meaning is still echoing within my head even today.

We walked through the alleyways of the old market towards the Church of the Annunciation when we met, by coincidence, a group of foreigners, accompanied by a local activist. We learned that they are active in minority rights movements in the United States, especially Black Lives Matter. They came to Palestine as an act of solidarity on an educational tour, and our friend guided them on their trip to Nazareth.

We were pleased with this opportunity to get acquainted, and we requested the guide to tell the respectable foreigners about Dareen’s case as well. He began to explain, but was not familiar with the details. With his permission I explained all the issue of the trial from Dareen’s arrest until the last court hearing on the same day. My explanation was brief but it was ample, and I felt that the guests were delighted to have the opportunity to meet in person one of the conflict stories.

But, when I stopped talking, it seemed that our guide friend was not satisfied. He told me, “Tell them the truth.”

I thought I had explained the details of the case accurately and honestly and did not understand what truth he wanted me to tell, so I did not respond.

However, it seemed that this truth that I couldn’t grasp was clear to other members of our small group, except for the foreigners. Some of them, Arabs, Jews and foreigners, urged me: “Yes, tell them the truth!”

I was confused. I was, as they say in Arabic, like “a deaf in a wedding”. I didn’t understand. “I have told the truth as I know it,” I said. “If I made any mistake, please correct me.”

“No, you were not mistaken. But tell them you are a Jew!”Dancing Monkey

At this point I lost my nerve. Some of my beloved friends felt that the foreigners, who were of different races and ethnicities, and who heard my balanced and objective words, could miss the main “attraction” – that the person who spoke this was someone of Jewish origin… Seeing such a scene should be regarded like seeing a dancing monkey in a street show.

“OK, OK, I will tell the truth,” I laughed.

“You have to know that we live in a society steeped in sectarianism,” I explained to the guests. “Zionism has taken control of all our thinking and we have stopped dealing with people as human beings. We are dealing with them first and foremost according to their sectarian affiliation. But even our concept of sectarian affiliation is wrong, distorted by Zionist misconceptions. Judaism, as I know it, is a religion. And any religion is based on faith and a set of convictions. As of me, as a person, I do not believe in this religion and have nothing to do with it. But Zionism wants to convince us that religion is transmitted by heredity through our genes… and that the son of a Jewish mother is definitely Jewish. I regret to tell you that, but my friends have requested me to introduce myself to you as a Jew.”

Thus I spoke the truth, as I found it in my heart, to the respected guests, to my beloved friends and to you, my dear readers.

 

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A spark of AI

My doctor decided that I have to do another heart test.

I went with his reference to the Heart Institute, hoping to schedule the test.

I approached the clerk at the reception and told her that I have a reference from my doctor.

“We don’t schedule tests”, she told me. “You should phone the call center.”

I found a free chair nearby, sat there and phoned the call center. After going through several stages with the bot, I had a woman on the line. I told her what test was required.

“No”, she said. “I can’t schedule this test for you. You can only schedule it directly in the institute.”

“Well”, I told her, “In the institute they said that I must call you.”

I crossed the corridor and approached the clerk at the reception.

“The call center says that only you can schedule the test”, I told her. She tried to deny that, so I let her talk with the woman on the phone.

“Well”, she told me, “why didn’t you tell me what kind of test you need? It is true that this test can only be scheduled directly”.

She scheduled the test for next Wednesday.

All this was daily practice of all human bureaucracy, not something worth writing about. But there was a twist in the plot that sounded to me like the harbinger of a new period.

We are all excited about how machines are acquiring artificial intelligence that allows them to emulate human reasoning and behavior.

Well, as I called the call center, the first response from the bot was to say that “we are sorry for the inconvenience but the system is very busy right now and response time is unusually long. Please try to schedule through the site.”Heart and AI brain

As I ignored this “try with another” initial response and filled my details anyway, the response was immediate, with no delay at all.

I really appreciated how the bot was adopting the intelligent methods of our human brothers and sisters, making me feel at home.

(Haifa, July 2018)

The day that Nur took responsibility

nur-christmas-1993_long

Nur, Christmas 1993

They were four kids from Halisa, this struggling poor neighbourhood on the slopes of Mount Carmel, on the eastern entrance to Haifa. Nur was the biggest of the four. At the time that this story happened, in the spring of 1994, he was about six and a half. Yes, half a year is important at such an age. He was already going to school, a first grade student at the Carmelite school located between Wadi Nisnas and Downtown Haifa.

The other 3 kids were still going to kindergarten, in the Sacred Heart monastery. Hadaf and Yasar were the son and daughter of our good friends and neighbours. Adam, my other son, was not yet three years old, the youngest in this small bunch.

The school and the kindergarten were some 3 kilometers away (by air) and, naturally, we had to drive the kids there every morning and bring them back after school hours. I used to take the four of them in the morning on my way to work. Osama, the father of Hadaf and Yisar, had a more flexible job and would take them back home.

Once Osama came to our house and informed me that on the next day he will be busy and would not be able to take the kids from school.

On the next day I went out of work, initially heading for the Carmelite school to pick up Nur. When I arrived there children were already pouring in a steady stream to the street, some of them finding their parents waiting, others, some of the older kids, walking home or going to catch a bus.

I waited patiently, but there was no sign of Nur. As the stream of kids dried out, I went into the schoolyard and looked around, hoping to find him playing there. But there were very few kids at the yard and Nur wasn’t there. I entered the school’s office and asked about Nur. Yes, he was at school but probably went home… Nobody really noticed.

hadaf-yisar-adam-fady-luay-rotated

Hadaf, Yasar, Adam, Fady, Luay – Probably 4 years later…

Going out I looked in the small streets around the school but there was no hint of where Nur might be. I decided to go and pick the other three kids from the kindergarten, some 500 meters away, before I will think of new ways to look for Nur.

I parked the car in front of the kindergarten. There were no kids waiting at the entrance, as most of the kids have already gone. I went in to take my three kids, but they were not there either. Finally one of the teachers told me: I think their brother came and took them.

It could seem crazy, a six and a half years old kid taking with him three small kids from the kindergarten in the middle of downtown Haifa, into the messy streets busy with traffic, far from home… But, to say the truth, for me this was a big relief after the daunting worries of the previous hour. So, Nur was not kidnapped after all. The four kids will not easily disappear together.

nur-adam-christmas-1993-edited

Nur & Adam, Christmas 1993

I started driving along the road home, but there is more than one way you can drive to Halisa and even more ways to walk. If I remember well I didn’t find them until they came home.

Nur explained that he heard Osama saying that he was busy and will not take the kids. So he simply did what he had to do.

When I think again and again about this day, one of the most frightening in my life, sometimes I think it might show how little trust Nur had toward his parents. But apparently he didn’t think he was abandoned or that there was anything unnatural in his parents being busy or him taking the kids walking home. He used to be a responsible kid, the biggest one in the bunch.

 

 

My First Protest…

You can say I was a shy and quite kid, in those old days… I lived in a small village and the local school even didn’t have enough kids to open a new class every year. But for some reason, which I fail to remember now, I always regarded myself to be from the opposition, unlike the good kids that only wanted to do what the teacher wanted them to.

It was in the seventh grade, when I made my first public protest. My teacher was a narrow-minded woman that came to the school after finishing a religious teachers-seminar. At about the same time my aunt, which used to live in New York, lost her husband and came back to the village to live with the family. She started teaching English in the local school. At night we would all gather in my grandma’s “Tolstoyan” salon, speaking about life. Making fun of our provincial school was a favorite topic.kindergarten_paid_teacher

One day my aunt taught us an English phrase: “The teacher is not always right, but he is always the teacher”. I liked it. Soon I organized my best friend and together we wrote this phrase (in Hebrew, of course) on a placard, waited after school hours when the classroom was empty, built a pyramid of school tables and chairs, and hanged it on the top of the wall, just near the ceiling.

When the teacher came the next morning she clearly didn’t like what she has seen. She threatened to punish the whole class, so we admitted that we did it. But when she demanded that we put off the placard we refused, and were thrown out.

For several days we spent our schooling time in the yard. I don’t remember what we were doing there, but it could hardly be more boring that attending classes. After some days my best friend told me that he want to surrender – his parents were not happy with him spending his time out of class and he couldn’t stand their pressure. So he went on to remove the offending phrase.

I never told my parents about the whole issue. But a few days later, when my mom waked me up, she had something to tell me. “I hear you make problems at school.” She told me. “Your teacher talked with me. I don’t know exactly what you did. And I know that your teacher may be sometimes narrow-minded… But…”

“Yes, mama, I know. She might be wrong, but she is always the teacher.”

“Yes, exactly”

It was a special joy to be punished for telling the truth.

 

Down and Out in Amsterdam 1973

As I was visiting friends in Amsterdam lately, I remembered my old days in Amsterdam in the autumn of 1973.

I was a shy, long haired, village boy and just finished my first year in the University of Jerusalem. I flew for a vacation to London and had an open return ticket from Amsterdam.

The war started while I was still in London. I continued according to plan and took the ferry to Amsterdam, but I definitely didn’t want to go back while the war was still raging, so I had to wait it out on low budget and hope for a fast ceasefire.

Amsterdam was a pretty good place for a young guy to kill time in that period. I embarked in a cheap youth hostel near the center. There were flocks of young people from all over Europe wandering around, still infected with the fever of the youth rebellion of the Sixties. You could sit with everybody to hear music for free in the open air. I was already pretty serious by that time about my political activism, but I wouldn’t say no to a joint if it passed by me.

Israelis looking for war

Wandering around just to keep myself away from war, I met some Israeli guys that were just looking for a way to go home to take part in the war. They were no regular flights but there were rumors about some flights that might fly to Lod from Amsterdam or some other European airports.

I remember especially one of them. He left Israel and already had good life in California. He came to Amsterdam as he heard that there may be some flight he could catch. It was not his first station in Europe. He told me how unlucky he was as he was only 18 in 1967 and just missed the war. He enlisted to the army later and continued to the USA, but he wouldn’t let himself miss another war. I still wonder whether he finally succeeded to get himself killed.

Criminal or just polite?

At the time you could hardly pass by in the streets near our hostel without having somebody whisper in your ear: “Hash, hash, hash… want hash?”

I could see where they took the willing customers. There was a middle-aged man seated always at the back of the longue in the hostel. They would seat with him while another guy would bring the stuff and soon they will go away.

Once I was hanging around in the street myself while one potential customer turned to me: Do you know where I can get hash?

Like the other guys (but without whispering in anybody’s ears), I brought him to the reliable source. I thought I’m entitled to get my fees for the service but decided to leave it like that, just being polite to everybody.

It was not a simple decision, as I was really running out of money.

Money problems

I was really naïve at the time. I had my last hundred dollars, and I tried to buy something in the street. The seller took the hundred dollar bill and requested me to wait while he is going to bring some change. He never returned. The other sellers around were looking at me like saying: you brought it upon yourself.

The war already finished and I had my flight back home, but for the last night I didn’t have money to pay the hostel, not to eat, not even to pay for the bus ticket to the airport.

In the evening I was wandering around in the streets of Amsterdam, just killing time, when some people called me. “Hey, they said, we know you from the hostel”. As I explained them my situation, they said they plan to sleep out on a boat and invited me to spend the night with them. I don’t really remember but I assume I even received some unexpected meal that night.

ComplicationsAmsterdam boats

Sitting with my new benefactors under the deck, I was not sure it was such a good luck. They were planning a robbery for that night. They went to sleep out so that there will be no evidence that they left the hostel in the middle of the night. There were maybe five men and one woman. It was her role to wake them up at around four o’clock in the morning.

I don’t think I slept much that night. But I was too egoistic to help my new friends and wake them up when the woman failed to do it. When they noticed it was already maybe six in the morning and the city around was starting to come to life – no good time for a robbery.

Happy End

I went to the station to take the bus to the airport.

As I arrived there I turned to the first man that happened to pass in the street.

“I have a ticket to go abroad, but I don’t have money to get the bus to the airport”, I told him.

He looked at me wearily.

“I know you’re lying. But I will give you the money anyway”.

I thanked him.

If you know him, please, thank him again.

 

 

Security Affair… in the Kindergarten

The following – completely true – short story is dedicated to all those people that are longing for the “democratic past” of Israel under “Mapai”.

In the middle Seventies, I was active in “The Workers’ League”, a small organization of the radical left that split from the famous “Matzpen”.

Two of our comrades were a couple of new immigrants from France. They came as Zionists but soon were disillusioned and became active in the Anti-Zionist organization. At the time that our story begins, the wife was working in a kindergarten that provided special care for children with Autism.

At the time there were not many institutions caring for these children. The kindergarten, in West Jerusalem, was affiliated to a local hospital. Our comrade was a specialist in her profession and did her best to help the children. She was loved by the management, the children and their parents.

Then, for some bureaucratic reason, the responsibility for the kindergarten was transferred from the ministry of health to the ministry of education.

As every Arab teacher knew very well at the time, in the ministry of education the last word about all appointments was given to the almighty Shin Bet – the Israeli secretive “internal security services”.

It came out that the Shin Bet’s authority didn’t spare Jewish teachers also, even not a kindergarten teacher that cared for autistic children. As soon as the ministry of education took control of the institution they informed the management that the leftist teacher should be immediately fired from her job.Dangerous_teacher

Finding a new qualified teacher for the hard task was not easy or fast, but the security authorities in the ministry refused even a temporary stay of execution until a replacement could be found. The parents faced a real problem also, as they couldn’t send their kids to the kindergarten without a teacher. Many of them had to skip work and stay at home. They organized a protest of their own, but, of course, their selfishness will not deter those responsible for the state’s security from fulfilling their sacred task.

All this was regular “no news” in the “Jewish democracy” under the “leftist” Labor Party. I wouldn’t waste your time with it unless there was a strange twist in the plot.

The teacher’s husband’s father happened to be one of the leaders of the Jewish community in France. When he heard the story he thought it is too foolish to be true. He didn’t support his son’s and daughter in law’s political activity in any way. But he thought that there is no reason that the teacher will be removed from work in a kindergarten where she obviously couldn’t have any subversive influence on the kids…

He remembered that he has a good friend. They went together to the same school and were active together in the Zionist movement. His friend made “Aliya” long time ago. By the time of our story his friend was already a pretty important minister in the Israeli government.

So he called his friend and told him of the extraordinary senseless persecution of his daughter in law. The minister quickly agreed that this doesn’t make sense and promised to speak with the responsible people and solve the problem.

The old French Jewish leader waited for a few days to hear from his minister-friend. There was no news. He tried to call him, but his good friend, untypically, was not answering his calls. He left messages in his office and home – but couldn’t get any response.

It was only a long time later when the two old leaders met by chance… The question of returning the daughter in law to her job was not relevant any more. The Israeli minister came to his old French friend and apologized: “I really tried. I did my best. But, you know, it was a security issue. I couldn’t do anything about it!”

 

How technological progress made me like everybody else?

Travelling along the streets of the occupied West Bank in the seventies and the eighties, there was a pastoral view that caught my imagination. Many kids of all ages were walking to school along the narrow roads. Apparently they had to walk like this for many kilometers. The view was even more surrealistic due to the eye-catching unified school dress that painted each section of the road with different colors and unnatural designs. But what really impressed me at the time was that many of the kids, boys and girls, used the opportunity to read, probably rehearsing their studies.Read_Walking

Like so many other things, I tried to learn this virtue from the West Bank kids. It worked for me very well. Mostly I was reading “The Economist” to keep myself updated with world affairs.

Over the last decade I’m using my dinner break at work to go to the sea shore, walking and reading. Sometimes with long white hair blowing with the wind – I made a strange figure.

Once a police patrol stopped near me and I heard one of them saying: I know this man, he ran away from Tira. Tira, originally Tirat Al-Louz a Palestinian town to the south of Haifa, ethnically cleansed and renamed to Tirat Ha-Carmel, a poor Jewish suburb, is the location of the main local hospital for the mentally ill. I succeeded to make myself calm and normal enough to pass this encounter and go on walking my way.

Read walking became such a central feature of my life that I even wrote a short story about it.

The problems started as the economist’s distribution network in the area stopped functioning. I would make the extra tour from the road to the beach to the books’ shop only to find that the last issue didn’t arrive yet. Try tomorrow, they would say, day after day. Finally I made a subscription to get the magazine by mail. But it didn’t really work either. After an initial grace period the issues were arriving four at a time, three weeks late by average.

Being deprived of my drug, I started reading the paper from my smartphone. It worked wonders. For the first time I could read the paper before readers in London…

Walking and reading my phone completely transformed my public image. As I was walk-reading along the beach, some guy looked at me, saying: Well, these new phones are really indulging… He smiled at me, sharing understandable human weakness.

Finally I became like everybody else.