Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ain't no Christmas in Israel

I used to enjoy cruising through Walnut Creek Christmas morning. Streetlights change from red to green to red, directing traffic that isn't there. In the normally bustling Broadway Plaza, empty nylon bags and unswept leaves swirl in front of the dark, deserted shops. I can stroll up to the movie ticket counter five minutes before showtime and still grab the best seat. The world feels like some post-apocalyptic dreamscape.
American immigrants love the 25th in Israel for the opposite reason. No more jolly red-suited fat men, fake snow spray painted on the drugstore windows, Styrofoam reindeer, interminable loop-tracks of jingle bells over the loudspeakers, or flashing lights. Free at last! Free at last! Thank gawd Almighty, I'm free at last! Occasionally, though, someone just has to bring it up. "Hey everybody, it's December 25th! Ha ha, look at me, I'm so unselfconscious I didn't even notice that it's the 25th."
For a telecommuter like me, it's a double-freebie. I get the day off from work, but here in Israel, home turf, it's business as usual. So I decided to spend my free day riding the Israeli bureaucratic merry-go-round. First stop: Interior ministry. My Michtav Ma'avar, the document certifying that I am permitted to leave the country for three months after landing, has expired, as has my legal right to renounce Israeli citizenship. The next step is to get my Teudat Ma'avar, a temporary passport. I take a number, wait an hour, and get to see the clerk. The paperwork is perfect, but of course there's a hitch; the passport photos I had taken at the mall are the wrong size. So it's downstairs and out the door and around the corner to the photo store to take new passport photos. Then it's back in the line at the door for a pat-down and metal detector sweep, something most Israelis just accept as a part of living but never ceases to tick me off. Damn bombers, forcing me to put checkpoints in front of every building, wasting precious minutes of my day. Then it's back up three flights of stairs, cut ahead of everyone and hand my photos to the clerk who staples them to my paperwork, back downstairs, and I'm out on the street with ten minutes to spare to get to my Tanach class at the yeshiva. Which is a thirty minute walk. Darn. So I hail a cab after cab, but they're all full, until a cabbie driving the opposite direction makes a screeching U-turn across traffic and swoops along the road to scoop me up.
"Where to?" Arabic accent. I know some Jews who simply won't ride with Arab cabbies.
"Kiryat Mosheh. Rechov Hame'iri" American accent. I hop in.
"Do you mind if I speak English?" he asks in English.
"No, go ahead." Most Arabs I've met prefer to speak English over Hebrew. It's a dignity thing. Not to assimilate. I can respect it, since I have no illusions about the ability of a free western society to absorb the eastern mentality.
"I don't know Rechov Hame'iri is. Do you?""Yes, It's off Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Street. I'll direct you."
"You mind if I smoke?""Go ahead," I tell him, taking a stand for reason over superstition, having just read an article concluding that, despite hyperbole to the contrary, there is no repeatable scientific study indicating that second hand smoke causes cancer. Who knows if it's true, but it feels good to be different. Taking a moment to grasp my surroundings, I notice that the car in front of us has green and white license plates entirely in Arabic, unlike Israeli yellow and black plates with Hebrew and Arabic.
"Where is that car from?" I ask the cabbie.
"It could be Egypt, could be Jordan, could be the gulf. Who knows?"
Egypt and Jordan are possible, since Israel has treaties with them, but, "The gulf? What would they be doing here?"
"Believe me, everybody wants to live here. I live in [majority Arab] East Jerusalem. There are Arabs from Dubai, Qatar, all over, living there."
"How do they get here? It's not like there's a peace treaty with them or anything. We're still at war."
"Money. If you have money, you can buy anything. But some day there will be peace. Soon, I pray! There's no reason for war."
This is about the only dialogue an Arab and a Jew can have here. He sees the yarmulke on my head and can probably guess my conservative politics. And I know enough about all the terror cells and training camps broken up in east Jerusalem. But we're stuck together for the cab ride, and he's trying to be polite.
He's just made a right turn. Off Bezalel, which leads straight to Kiryat Moshe. Now we're on Ben Zvi, at least a five minute detour in this traffic, and the meter is ticking. It's a part of Arab culture that I have encountered time and time again and have come to hate; the immediate use and betrayal of the tiniest trust for advantage. He knows it's a detour. I know it's a detour. He suspects that I know it's a detour, but he knows that I'm American, and because he was polite to me, I will be too courteous to call his bluff. I should have paid attention when we switched to the right turn lane. I shouldn't have trusted. The meter ticks another 30 agurot out of my pocket and into his bank account. Well, if I don't get a free ride, neither does he.
"There isn't going to be peace. Not soon, not in a hundred years, and not in a thousand."
He's taken aback by my bluntness. It's not like his people to answer directly.
"Look, what do I need in life? Really? A house, a car, a good school for my children. All we need is peace.""I was here in 2000," I tell him, "and it felt so close. There were treaties, meetings. Everyone thought it was going to be the end of war. Then, boom, the intifada. Bombings and killings. Whenever we think we're close, that's when the war gets the worst."
Usually at this point I'm confronted with the tsunami of Arab grievances; that the Jews stole my house/poisoned my well/made the rain stop/made me bald, so who wouldn't blow themselves up? But I'm not the neutral tourist this time, and he knows I'm not going to buy it.
"It's the leaders. The people want peace, but the leaders don't."Ah yes. I've heard this one before too, that the middle east has leader's disease. That if only whoever was in charge would expire, then all the problems would go away. Except it's not the leaders who are strapping on bombs.
"Sorry," I say as we pull up to the yeshiva and I hand him 22 shekels, "but I don't buy it. I want peace, but I don't see it ever happening."
"Well, I still believe. Salamalakum, have a good day."I don't move to get up. The Israeli flags hanging from the facade of the Yeshiva flap in the breeze. The cabbie makes like he's filling out paperwork, waiting for me to get out. I look at the meter. 21.30 shekels.
"You owe me seventy agurot."
"Oh, really? Why? How much did you give me?"
"Twenty two." It would have been fifteen without the detour."Oh, yes, okay, no problem. Here you are."

Torah study, afternoon prayers, and lunch successfully accomplished, I'm back on the street on my half-hour walk towards Ben Yehuda and King George street when I hear a bus revving behind me. I glance back and see the fourteen. A familiar number, but I didn't know it comes all the way out to Kiryat Moshe. Let's see, where does the fourteen go? Yes! It's going downtown, and right to my intersection! I sprint up to the stop and force myself onto the bus, compressing the crowd further in just enough to fit inside the hydraulic doors. Ten minutes later, I'm at my intersection and talking to the clerk at MEMES, the Israeli Triple-A, trying to get my American driver's license switched over to Israeli.
"No, we don't do that here any more. You have to go to the Peninat Yerushalayim Hotel. It's by the Jaffa Gate."
Another half hour of urban hiking later, I'm at the hotel door. Bag search, metal detector sweep, damn bombers. "Drivers license? Bottom floor, to the right."I walk into the driver's school, which consists of one clerk at a desk.
"I want to transfer my license over from California to Israel.""Okay, you need to go next door, have an eye exam, and then get the green approval form. Then, you need to come back here and I will give you further paperwork. Then, you need to go to your doctor and have him sign off that you're in good health. Then, you need to go to the motor vehicles department in Talpiot and have your form stamped. Then, you need to come back here and I will give you two driving lessons. Have you ever driven before?" "Yes."
"In Israel?"
"Then I should probably give you three lessons. Then I will give you the test, and you will have your license. But you want to make sure that you pass the test because if you fail you will have to pay hundreds and hundreds of shekels like all the other Israelis." I wander next door to the eye doctor.
"I'm looking for the green paper."
Groomed, suited, and deliberate in his body language, the eye doctor responds in impeccable Hebrew with a hint of an Arabic accent, "Yes, sir, that would be the Tokef. My name is Achmed. Please have a seat." He lifts his camera, and I notice a blue background behind me when -FLASH- before I realize that I'm being photographed.
"Please come this way, sir, and look through the viewglass at this screen. Now, if you would please read the numbers from left to right."
It's part of Arab culture that I love, the thoughtful politeness you don't hear in Jewish Israel. It's a relief.
"One five seven nine three. Is that photograph you just took going to be the one on my license?"
"Yes, it will. And will you please now read with your right eye.""Nine four three seven. How did it come out?""Very handsome. You look just like my younger brother. How many colors do you see?"
"Now, I'm going to flash some lights, tell me if you see them in the right or left eye."
"You know," he interjects, "my brother lives in Lebanon."
So I could pass for Lebanese? Perhaps my unspoken-
-fantasy of infiltrating Hizbullah isn't so outlandish after all. Wait a minute, so how did Dr. Achmed get-
-here? It's not as if there's an open border between Israel and-
-Lebanon. After all, we just had war with them. There are only three-
-possibilities. Either both brothers were both born here and his brother met a girl and-
-left Israel for Lebanon, or they were born in Lebanon and he-
-married an Israeli Arab and moved here under the family reunification-
-law. Or it could be he was born in Lebanon as a Christian and-
-fought with the South Lebanese Army, Israel's Christian ally against Hizbullah in the 1990's, until Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 1999 and gave-
-sanctuary to the South Lebanese. But then he wouldn't be working on Christmas, would he?
"Your vision is excellent," he tells me, pulling the green Tokef form from the laser printer. My photograph is in the top left corner, eyes glazed and confused, hair unkempt. If I look like his brother, his brother must be a heroin addict.
Should I ask his story? Would I believe whatever he told me? And if I didn't, would I have to disbelieve his courtesy, gentility, sweet words as another farce? I let it go. There might be quiet here some day, but there will never be trust.

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