Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Yemeni Book of Living and Dying

This, my friends, will be my longest post to date. Some days simply deserve that.

When Alon Sigavi, the book's photographer, joined me this morning, we had a few options of places to visit and document. We could go to Sachnin in the north, but the city is famous for its football club and we preferred to go there when there's a match going on. We could go to Netivot in the south, where well known miracle maker Rabbi Baba Sali is buried, but their unique market is only on on Tuesdays. We settled on Rosh Ha'ayin, a blue-collar eastern suburb of Tel-Aviv.

What seemed to be the least exotic option turned out to feature my first experience of consuming a recreational drug as part of a job assignment.

Rosh Ha'ayin was funded in the late 40s as a tent town for Jewish immigrants from Yemen. It's still a very Yemeni place. Almost everyone downtown is endowed with the physical characteristics associated with Yemenis - a particular petiteness, burnt sienna skin and black hairs. We enjoyed fatty and savory "hoof soup", which was served with special pancake-like bread and "hilbe" - a strange condiment that effects the body odor of those who consume it. We saw a photo exhibit of the historic migration and of mud skyscrapers in Southern Arabia, but that's the boring part of the story.

It was the warden at the local historical museum who showed us the way to a qat vendor named Shalom. Shalom's old car was parked behind a kiosk and he was offering green bunches for 50 sheqels apiece. "sheqel" and "qat" are both words amply familiar to Scrabble players in English. They allow the player to use a "Q" without having to wait for a "U". I don't know how common scrabble is in Yemen, but qat is just as popular there as it is at the professional Scrabble world series. It's a national pastime, the drug of choice. Here in Israel it's fully legal to grow, sell and consume, but for some reason isn't available in supermarkets. You have to know the right guy in a Yemeni community to score some.

Chewing the leaves gives a serious buzz - and something extra. Qat is perhaps the most powerful natural aphrodisiac known to man. When my marriage was ending, I bought some qat drink at the Yemeni quarter in downtown Tel-Aviv. I wanted to offer her a courtship gift, to show her that I care and that I'm intent on finding imaginative ways to refresh the bond. Qat wasn't enough to save the marriage and that's not where the problem was to begin with, but even the mere memory of getting stoned with her is one of my fondest of the period.

The drink anyway has a lighter effect than actually chewing the leaves. Equipped with a bunch the size of a major head of lettuce, Alon and I now went on to visit a Yemeni Jeweler named Ezra. He made us Yemeni "white coffee" (don't ask me, somehow it's white and it's coffee), showed us some of the most astounding works of craftsmanship I've seen, and asked to check our stash. He said it was B-grade but would do, and that we should fill up our stomachs before we consume it. He also taught us how to choose the right leaves to chew. "I don't take it myself", said ezra "If I do I go crazy, I don't sleep at night. I go crazy! A spliff in the evening, that's all I need. I don't need this kind of stuff."

The comparison made qat sound like some serius narcotic. We were getting nervous, but the concept of the book is that we experience each city in Israel through the five senses, and Rosh Ha'ayin without qat is like Dublin without Guinness. Interestingly, qat is legal in the U.K. but illegal in the Republic of Ireland. This random fact may only be of interest to my friend Liat Sayaf, who is part Yemeni, part Irish, but bear it in mind if you ever think of carrying any of this stuff south of the Six Counties.

We thought of carrying our own to the Antipatris fortress, an imposing ruin situated just west of town. First we stopped at Kafar Qasem, a large Palestinian-Israeli town, to stock up on baklawas lest we hurt our stomachs. Kafar Qasem is the site of a major pogrom commited by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian-Israelis in 1956.

At the time curfews were commonly imposed also on Arab communities inside Israel (and not only in the occupied territories). An officer in Kafar Qasem ordered that all those breaking curfew are shot dead, without effectively notifying the population of the curfew. The monument at the heart of the town lists the 48 victims, among them girls and boys as young as 8 years old. The officer who initially gave the order was fined 10 Israeli cents. Other officers involved were somehow slipped away from imprisonment and given high ranking government positions. The people at a Kafar Qasem cafe were hospitable to us regardless. We stocked on sweets, took a photos of the mosque and the monument and headed on.

Unfortunately, it turns out the national park authority locks Antipatris fortress before sunset. Our alternative junkies' niche was a bit bizarre: the cemetery at Kibbutz Einat.

It's not just any cemetery. Einat is a rare place in Israel where secular funerals are conducted. This means that Jews lie there next to Non-Jews, and that many free minded people such as artists choose to be buried there. Each plot is a small garden where the bereaved plant trees and place objects related to their loved ones. The entire cemetery is a flowering garden of love and longing.

I never felt so sad in a cemetery before. The one in Bnei Brak I visited recently was starkly impersonal, while this was so obviously the resting place of individuals. You could tell those who died Young by the toys placed in the flower beds, the ripe old agers by the engraved quotes by forgotten poets and the occasional garden gnome. This is what loss is really about: a cherishing of what was once alive. Walking there, my own life and the lives of those dear to me gradually gained more and more value in my eyes.

To celebrate being alive, we spread the fresh greens on a bench and began chewing. Soon enough it hit us, the "sutul", the sense that everything is well with the world, and if it isn't, who cares. The sun was setting over massive Highway 6 - Israel's noisy toll turnpike, shining its last rays on the West Bank only two miles away to the east. None of this could disturb the deep rest of the dead nor of the living. We were one with them, for a short while. We were also one with the struggling families of Rosh Ha'ayin, with the still scarred elders of Kafar Qasem and with ourselves. Finally we said a last cheer for Yemen and its people, and headed back to the glowing lights of the big sober city.


Nasrawi said...

Nice post... peace

raanan said...

Thank you for a poet's vision.

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Evelina said...

Wow, Beautiful telling...I almost felt like I was there. I never been in Israel and I thought I never would. Now I know I will....Thanks for the Journey...