Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Guests from Nablus

Sometimes it takes people from around the world to let you know what's happening 60 kilometers away from your home. Tonight they are on my balcony. The candle flames are struggling against the wind from the fan, schnitzels are brought in from the kitchen and a song by Johnny Cash is being played on the guitar. There's someone from South Africa, someone from France, someone from Sweden, someone from California and even someone from the exotic Aland islands.

In a way, though, they are all from Nablus.

I've visited Nablus during the happy-go-lucky peace-process Nineties. It is a pretty city nestled dramatically between two steep mountains, renowned for its sweets, its serpentine market and its unique community of Samaritans.

Since the start of the second Intifada Israelis are not allowed to visit Nablus or any other Major Palestinian city legally. The exception is the heart of Hebron, which was completely overtaken by 600 Israeli settlers and is therefore treated by the government as a de-facto Israeli neighborhood. It is in Hebron that I met the South African member of the party, one of the kindest and most inspiring people I've ever met, as well as other volunteers working with the Jerusalem based International Solidarity Movement. A friendship was formed, a beautiful, normal friendship.

At the same time, it is also an important friendship. The media doesn't tell me what's happening in Nablus, and I need to know because being Israeli, I carry responsibility for the situation there. My guests tell of nightly incursions by the army. There's firing every night, they say. They tell of entire families taken hostage by the I.D.F. as buildings are occupied to make sniper positions. They tell of teenagers held blindfolded in cages at checkpoints, of houses demolished without a warrant, of a bomb that exploded 150 meters from their residence.

I paid for that bomb with my tax money. I pay for the occupation of Nablus, so I need to know these things, and Palestinians can't come and tell me about it. They can't travel to Israel nor even move freely between their towns. The volunteers came to Tal-Aviv to relax, visit my home and color up their diets, but also to share. They came following 5 weeks in hell without a trace of hatred towards me as an Israeli or the Hebrew-speaking city I live in. I'm grateful to them for seeing the complexities and staying sincere, gentle and attentive also when confronted with criticism, doubt and the common Israeli point of view by me and my friends.

I've another thing to be grateful for: They introduced me to the gorgeousness of Imogen Heap's music.

The lyrics are very secondary in this unique live feat of overdubbing, but listen to them and you'll find that they can be nearly as moving as the music, especially on a night like this. "leave all our hopelessnesses aside," she sings, "Just for a little while / Tears stop right here / I know we all had a bumpy ride / I'm secretly on your side."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Little Prince

Merhav puts his fingers over my guitar strings. "Haven't the Jewish people suffered enough?" he asks.

"Turn the music back on, and I'll stop." I reply. He is, after all, the authority: a part time controversial poet, part time waiter at the "Little Prince" cafe, and full time cynic. In truth, the Jewish and non-Jewish people present don't seem to be suffering too much from my music. It drew into the book-filled room at the back of the cafe a wild croud of night owls: Two Israeli girls out for a cup of Chai, two Jewish-Italian immigrants who have just found out they rear from the same street in Rome, a beautiful black Frenchwoman and her friend, an overtanned blond with huge hoop earrings. These two are asking for music by Serge Gainsbourg, and somebody instantly yells: "Couleur Cafe"! I look hesitantly at the black girl. Never before have I played a song that alludes directly to my audience's skin color. She happens to be begging for "Couleur Cafe". we set off.

I like your Coffee color,
Your Coffee hair
Your Coffee neck,
I like it when you dance for me,
Then I hear the murmur
Of your many bracelets,
Pretty bracelets,
The balance against your feet.

"Coffeeeee coloooor" the room forms a choir, "How I like your coffee color!"

Merhav lets us be done, then walks away with a comment about my "bordello" and turns the recorded music back up. No complaints. It's two in the morning and we are all in the best nighthole in Tel-Aviv, a literary haunt during the day, an all night light burning down the pretty "Simta Plonit" alleyway, a nicely equipped second-hand bookshop and a home of sorts to more than one of my friends. most notably Carmelli, Vizan, Theo and Olivier. The atmosphere can become stagnant at times, which is why I'm not on the list of constant residents, but hey, you've got to respect a place that's so deeply loved. The Little Prince closes only once during the week, on Friday nights. When it reopens on Saturday evenings these guys sprawl over the back room couches, saying things like:

"I couldn't take it, weekends are so hard."
"Same here, I need the Prince."

They remain spraweled until the party begins, forcing them to make room for others. Today the party is in Honor of Yehuda Vizan's birthday. Vizan is part time controversial poet, part time basketball instructor and full time "Little Prince" dweller. There he is, a bouquet of flowers before him, his glass of wine full. a pretty girl in his arms, speaking pidgin French an Italian to the international crowd. There's some very real Italian being exchanged as well. The Romans found all three volumes of "The Divine Comedy" on the shelves and they are reminicing about school days that were dedicated to them.

"Would you say that this place is the Tel-Aviv version of 'Tmol Shilshom'"? one of them asks me, referring to Jerusalem's renowned cafe of literati.

"You know, I love them both," I reply, "but there's something telling about the position in which I'm sitting right now. At Tmol Shilshom you'd always face the table. here, before sitting down, you'd pull the chair to face the room and keep an eye on the enterence, you never know who might step in."

It is Merhav who is stepping in at the moment. "Why don't you sing something for us?" he asks with a smile.

"I thought just a minute ago you were being protective of Jewish ears."

"I thought so too, but then I heard you talk."

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Speaking in Tongues

Today was the first time I've heard a person speaking in tongues, and she was speaking in tongues about me.

We were standing at eventide, knee deep in the water of the Mediterranean, surrounded by Muslim families who frequent the beach at Givat Aliyah on Fridays. The sea was wonderfully calm. her hand was touching my shoulder and at this point it was pretty obvious that she was not going to be touching any other part of me. The "tongues" sounded a bit like Portuguese. It occured to me that she earlier mentioned having visited Portugal. Hmmm.

That beach is a very spiritual place. I nevertheless left it feeling rather secular. When, mid-tongues, she suddenly reverted to English, asking God to speak to me more clearly, I felt as though both God and I were being reprimanded: me for being and atheist, him for having made me that way. When she told me that her mind's eye sees an image of me as a peeled, boiled egg, I felt like a peeled, boiled egg, which is a peculiar way to feel.

Today was the first time anyone ever described me as an egg of any sort. All in all it was a sweet experience. She was being kind and generous with me. I guess each one of us has different gifts to give. Mine would be to say the amen at the right spot and a nice thank you as we head back to the parking lot.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


The music of Georges Moustaki goes well with strong coffee and the wind from the fan on this quiet afternoon. I finished my work and am yielding to the loveliness of his arpeggios.

"La femme qui est dans mon lit n'a plus vingt ans depuis longtemps", he sings. "The woman who is in my bed hasn't been twenty years old for a long time." What singer in English would admit to that?

There's something very sweetly middle-aged about this afternoon. the light at five o'clock is both golden and gray. I'd like to be as old as Georges and know how to love differently.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Besudfeh Ahla

My amigo Theo and I went to Nazareth. Most people come to Nazareth seeking Jesus, I come seeking people who happen not to be Jesus, but are nonetheless Nazarene. There's plenty of that for us.

There's Daher, the owner of the Al-Rida Cafe. I don't recognize him at first since he shaved his marvelous Obelix moustache, the outcome of a trimming accident. He insists on taking us to the roof to look at the town. The Basilica of the annunciation, with its lantern-bearing conical roof, looks like a massive lighthouse from there. It is so near that had Al Rida been a ship, it would have smashed against it. Daher converted the attic into a B&B. Dangerous stuff, Any pilgrim would get a heart attack upon waking up to that view. Theo is impressed with the reserved, Scandinavian design. "Who made this happen?" he asks. "I'm the only victim here", replies Daher - carpenter the first.

There's Mary, Who co-owns another cafe, the Sudfeh ("coincidence"). She is a curator and worked at several cultural institutes in the city before tasting entrepreneurship. Naturally, the Sudfeh will end up featuring a gallery, and is already pretty artsy with its Mexican style courtyard, nice bar and whimsical t-shirts worn by the waiters. "Bisudfeh akhla" one of them reads - something like: "I happen to be better looking", and a wordplay on the restaurant's name.

It turns out Mary's quite fond of Daher and frequents the Al Rida to get her "Daher fix" from time to time. Now, Nazareth is hardly my city, it's an Arab city, a city across the cultural, linguistic and political lines. You can hardly imagine how peculiar and fun it is for me to talk to people there about mutual acquaintances, and so fondly at that. Mary from Sudfeh - carpenter the second.

Forgive my obsession with nightlife spots, but another one of them exemplifies the Nazareth spirit wonderfully. "The Moon Pub" is located in the Jewish enclave situated at the very top of the hill. Nazareth Illit may have been designed as a Zionist fortress, but at night it's pretty off guard. Gilu, the owner, is leisurely smoking a hookah pipe, warning us against gambling on the stock exchange. Dorit, a costumer and kibbutz kindergarten teacher, notifies us that she slaughtered a lamb that day, in preparations for a friend's wedding. "I haven't washed since!", she declares, then offers us a lift downtown. We descend down impossibly steep streets into a maelstrom of lights. Dorit is a carpenter for sure, plus an able butcher.

Nazareth is well constructed. Spend an afternoon chatting to whoever feels like chatting, on the mattresses at the courtyard of the Fauzi Azar hostel. Lose your way and have someone direct you by putting a hand on your shoulder and walking you to your destination. Wander to a mysterious chapel that's locked, then walk into the neighbors' kitchen as they cook and have them hand you the hammer-sized key - you'll get the idea. Some fine woodwork was performed to put that city together, mentally-speaking, that is. If Jesus grew up there he must have been a really sweet guy.

The Costa Factor

Inspiration is a kick. I am inspired to start blogging tonight thanks to a kick I got from Brazilian singer Gal Costa. Listen to this.

I love an artist who lets go. I love a person who lets go. Costa does it within two minutes of bluesy bossa. By vocalizing along to the audience she voids her role as a singer, defining jazz attitude.

That Jazz attitude is what I was looking for. If I take this summer too hard, I'll be devastated. The heat around here is abominable. a dramatic separation is still a very recent memory, funds are short, and I still don't use my beard trimmer properly, so it always comes out uneven.

But consider this: There's someone down on the street drumming on a Palestinian darbouka, The yellow half moon high above him, the slender palm tree listening to him, as does the pink house across from the military court, as does chicken on skewers, grilling at Zika's.

Consider Yeffet St. - a gateway to a night of honking horns, trash-can lovers' lanes, narrow staircases where empty mop buckets were left to accumulate sleeping pigeon teardrops.

This is the jazz of Jaffa. If I let go, like Gal Costa, and hum along to it, we may get somewhere.