Tel Aviv. I meet Jaafar. I haven't seen him since last year when I was in the West Bank.
I had met Jaafar in Nablus, because of Yahyah who is Sam's brother. I had become their friend learning this way about all the intricacies of the thoughts of these young boys from Nablus.
They had driven me to Bethelem telling me they were already going there anyway. Which I realized quite soon it was not true, they were just being kind to me. I have written here before, about how difficult it was that time for me and my three Palestinian friends to be taken by my Italian friend to see the separation wall. I wrote extensively about how unhappy I was by his poor choice of making us walk inside of the metal bar corridors that lead us to the checkpoint. I wrote about how much I silently cried feeling like we were animals. How sad I was to realize that my friends here could not meet my friends there. How much I hated that wall. I wrote about taking refuge in an icecream with them.
Now Jaafar is here in Tel Aviv. He works with computers in Ramallah and had been invited by Microsoft in Herzelya to go visit them. Microsoft had applied for the permissions for Jaafar and 2 other Palestinians to come to Israel. It is not the first time that he comes to Microsoft. This time however, he could not make it. They were held too many hours in the checkpoint.
I know nothing of this when I go meeting him. All I know is that at 8pm he would be free for not very long as it was a one-day permit and they have to return soon from Tel Aviv to Ramallah.
I walk the streets towards the place we are supposed to meet in but Jaafar sees me first. He is inside of a natural shop with his friends. I go in. I am puzzled by what they are buying. "Protein" they explain. "It is for the gym". I laugh and walk around the shop. Being intrigued by the amount of health food they hold. They speak to the older Jewish Israeli owner in English. He is curious and wants to know where they are from.
They say they are from "Schem" the Hebrew name of Nablus. The old man says he had been there as a child. That it was a wonderful place. He wished he could visit. They tell him he should come. I am intrigued by how friendly the conversation is.
We walk out. And Jaafar and I go for a walk. Michal, my Israeli Jewish friend, is coming to meet us. I feel some joy about it.
We meet her, and walk while we talk about all that has happened since I last saw him. Who got married, changing of jobs, ramadan, etc....
I see in Jaafar's face how happy he is to see me. I am happy to see him too.
I tell him about my settler friend. I ask him whether it disturbs him I had been out with a settler. He asks me what kind of a settlement it is from. I explain it was a neighborhood mainly consisting of Palestinian people. That I was told that there were Jewish people who had always lived there. I ask him what he thinks about it
"I think it is ok."
"Do you think they should be made to move back to Israel?"
"I think the new settlements yes. But people who have always been there no. Palestinians and Jews mostly lived in peace for years. The can stay.. but the new ones should go."
I ask him what he feels about Palestinians Citizens of Israel (Arab Israelis). Should they move to Palestine once (if) there is a state? He does not think so. They live here. They are used to their lives here. They have always lived here so they should not have to move.
We are now seating in Habima beautiful square. Right in front of the Theater and right on the garden. We seat on a corner. Jaafar is to on the middle.
Michal asks him things as well. We talk about Nablus which Michal did not know it was the same place as Schem. We look for the etymology of the name. I tell him she wanted to come but is afraid. He tells her she is more than welcome to come. She explains she does not have a different passport. She is Israeli and according to the law Israelis can't go to the West Bankn ( unless they are settlers, or IDF soldiers). He tells her she could ask for a Permit like he had done it. She explains she feels it might be dangerous for an Israeli to go there. She says it politely, careful, as she cares about what he thinks, and because she also wants to know more, and is afraid. He suggests she does not go around screaming she is an Israeli and that she speaks English. But he does not believe she would have a problem.
She explains she is certain that most people would be nice but she is afraid of terrorists. Her mother, she explains, would be terrified if she went to the WB. She is curious but at the same time she is afraid of going. She does not want to have to conceal her Israeli identity. He understands her fear thought he still thinks it would be fine.
I love Michal. And I understand her. I really do.
She is so young and so different than most people I know. She always is honest and says whatever she thinks. I met her in India and through having an accident in a bus we became more connected than ever. We traveled India together till I flew away. We sat for hours sometimes by the Rishikesh bridge in India just looking at the people. The saris. Saying yes to every man, boy, girl, woman, parents who wanted to take pictures with us. We must feature in hundreds of pictures. We found it funny. And because we always took pictures of people we thought it would be nothing but balanced to let people take pictures of us.
We once traveled to Rajasthan in a fully packed bus. We were 5 westerners in the bus. The other 3 did not want to have any contact with Indians. We gave one of our beds out so that 5 guys could go spend a whole night there rather than in the floor. Because of this they took cared of us.
And then when I broke my foot in Thailand she took 18 hours of a bus ride to see me.
And now I am here with her in Tel Aviv. She seats next to my Palestinian friend and I know she feels as sad as I do when she hears he missed the appointment because of the check point. Though we don't talk about it I know it is hard for her to see him. It is nothing about him or her. But these meetings they are too human. I was once told by a philosopher I met in Jerusalem he could not deal with reading me. I pressed him to tell me more about it.
" It is too human Jules. If you talked politics I could fully agree or disagree with you. But when you tell me of the lives of people then I noticed something that is unbearably painful that as much as I am against the occupation it still functions in my mind in a certain way because we draw lines of separation"
I was thankful to him for saying that out loud to himself and to me. I knew it was incredibly hard to get it out of him. But when two human beings meet as humans. Not as a category of a specific group, all ideologies seem to fall. You cant possibly sustain an occupation of normal human beings. So we play with people's minds. Some are convinced that all of those on the other side of the wall are dangerous. Others think is just a portion. And even the nicest feel that the existence of one terrorist is enough to occupy a whole country...
It work both sides as well... and in many places of the world.
It is hard to be a bridge.
I ask Jaafar to text me once he is back to the West Bank so that I know it went all fine.
A few hours later I get his message "Back to reality"
It hurts to be a bridge.. It hurts that the possibilities of encounter seem yet for all like a distant dream. It is hard to cross frontiers and internal borders. No matter who you are. Yet, I still think we must always do it. We must all embrace the pain. With it comes a silent more complex understanding. An everlasting faith that eventually, all walls fall down...
Elick smiles and says Amit was an Engineer. Amit is terrified.
" I worked as an engineer because there is no theoretical part to the army! Everything is applied.. but I was NEVER an engineer. I worked temporarily as one"
He says it with disgust. I laugh. I am in Jerusalem. I stay with Elick who I traveled Kashmir and Mc Leod in India with. Elick, for those who remember, had been raised in a Yeshiva in a very religious family. He had quit religion through literature to study physics, and in physics he discovered math.
I stay with Elick and his girlfriend Tali now. Tali has her last exams while I am there. She who also comes from a family of mathematicians. She however, grew up in the secular world in Haifa a city where Palestinians and Jews live together.
Amit is apparently a mathematics genius. Someone who does not sleep, and thinks the whole time of geometry. He loves mathematics to the point that anything else seems to not exist for him. He finds physicists are liars as they are always making approximation about everything. He makes jokes about physicists. So calling him an engineer was nothing short of an offense.
He despises applied use of mathematics, he cares about the abstractions.
I laugh. Listening to this highly educated men talking about abstractions of abstractions. I left the West Bank and all my partial fasting ( I drank water) to cross Jerusalem in a festival day. Mahane yehuda, the main market is packed with artists ... and I went from hearing the love stories and practical reality of the occupied territories to now listen to music and have very philosophical conversations which I can barely grasps about religion and maths.
How can I do it? Sometimes I wonder. What kind of cognitive dissonance do I need to be able to cross the wall and have everything change so much in minutes?. How is it that now I go out with Elicks ex-religous friends to the Muslim quarter when the fasting has been broken to see it. They ask me about the westbank, How is it that I ended up knowing more about human lives there in few months then they have in all of their lives? I am surrounded by the ex-religious friends of Elick. Some are mathematicians, others doctors, and one, in special was a settler.
I never met a settler before. And now I went out with one. A settler who lived in a Palestinian neighborhood in the Westbank. He takes me there to see it. He speaks fluently Arabic. He is a beautiful man. He has never believed. He can't explain me very well how is it that he quit the Yeshiva. He seems to have no political opinions though he is a journalist and studies the middle east.
He has Palestinian friends, though when he explains to me about these relationships he can see the details that my left wing friends in Israel can't. He explains me the intricacies of the languages. I am confused. I never thought I d be in the Occupied Territories with a settler... and now I swim in the springs among religious Jews, while I am accompained by an ex-religious who was raised in the occupied territories..not exactly a settlement, but a Palestinian neighbourhood where there are only 4 Jewish families living.
I dont know what to think about it. It is definitively a first.
I ask him about it. And I am not sure I can reproduce what he told me. He lived in an area where Jews had always lived. during the 48 war jews had no water and were saved by these Palestinians who brought water for them to survive. He says he grew up knowing that. That he was taught they had to respect the Palestinians because they had saved them. I listen without knowing what to think. I don't even know very well what the word "respect" here means. He talks of a Palestinian girl he would marry if it would not mean to loose both all of his family and for her to loose all of hers. We listen to the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila. A highly politicized Lebanese band and he can sing all the lyrics in Arabic while it plays. He learned about them through the Palestinian friend. I, as well, heard them for the first time, when I first arrived in the west bank a bit more than one year ago.
"Jules, you dont understand. These hollywood stories cannot happen here!"
I hear. I pay attention to his linguistic explanations. I am confused. I ask him about how did his very religious family react to him quitting the Yeshiva. They never talk about it. It is not the first time I am with the ex-religious and I am always intrigued by them.
I am in fact always so intrigued about the people who quit their lives, all that was familiar. Elik though nonreligious finds his friends who went to the Yeshiva more inteligent than his mathematician secular friends. My secular friends who do not know the ex-religious have despise to the yeshiva people. It all goes back to an economical ( and ideological?) situation. And again I cant do justice to explain this properly here. It suffixes to say that through the years the right and the left have conceded more and more rights to the religious to get their political support.
They are now in a situation where the religious population grows exponentially. They pay less taxes, are paid by the state once they have more than 4 children ( which most of them do). Their Yeshivas is fully financed. They usually ( but not all) are very right wing and were exempted from going to the army. Now, as the law has expired there is lots of discussion on the matter. Whether it is fair or not for the religious to not go to the army. What modifications would the IDF ( Israeli defense Force) have to do to accommodate for young religious boys who already are married with lots of children and are not supposed to have contact with women. And of course, this whole discourse on "fairness" also rises the question whether Palestinian Citizens of Israel ( also know as as Arab Israelis- who are the Palestinians who are citizens in Israel and not leaving in the occupied territories) should not be required as well. This is a moot discussion of course. They do not want the the Palestinians Citizens of Israel in the IDF but those are the kinds of debates that are happening here right now.
I dont know what to think. As the improbable bridge that I have become I learn from all sides..challenging always my certainties. I end up as the bridge of a Facebook conversation between my friend from Nablus Ihab and my Jewish Israeli friend Michal in Tel Aviv. She is curious to know what they think, She wished she could also visit Nablus and meet them. He thinks she can.According to the law she can't. He understands her fear to come as an Israeli. Though he wished she could just come speaking English. It is sad to be that bridge.
I also meet an UN manager here. He is cool. He came from South Sudan. He loves the life in Jerusalem. He also lived before in Togo. He is from Belgium and thought he seems to be a problem solver I feel he does not really understand anything about the middle east. He is kind. He wants to help the project. But the coldness and the mechanic way he looks at things both shock me and surprise me.
Who knows...maybe it is what they need in the middle east.. to be more practical... more clear....but at the same time, this idea alone, seems soooooooo foreign here...
Love. I rarely feel equipped to talk about love. Love in the middle east or anywhere else in the world in fact. I barely understand myself so I observe other's lives and love stories. I pay attention to them. What is it that is love? What is it that they value? And I am simultaneously taken aback by both how similar we are as human beings, and yet how different we seem to represent things.
I seat in the veranda with cats around me, Mahmood, and Ihab, and we wait for Sam in Nablus. Sam is my friend since the first time I came to the west bank. He is probably my most assiduous reader and has commented almost in all the texts that I have ever written. And Sam believes in Love, Love with capital letters. The archaic type you read once about in a fairy tale.
Sam has had a life that is nothing short of epic and yet he loves the same woman for the past 18 years. I now know his whole family. He is tall. He is strong. And now he is nervous like a child. He speaks Arabic. We are all tense. We all know what that call means. It is a call to render life in the middle east a bit like the Arabian Nights...
Sam, like most boys here, married when he was very young. In Palestine boys and girls rarely speak alone, and never touch each other if they are not part of the same family. They are expected to marry virgins. I know little about the Christian Palestinians but I realise that even the way they greet each other sets the boundaries of "no transgressions". How you say Hello and how you answer establishes immediately which relationships are possible to you or not.
I know the Muslim Palestinian better since I have stayed in their houses every time I stayed in the West Bank. And they love like in a story tale. They love for years on end a particular woman they have never really known much about. They love them forever. They marry different girls to revenge from disrupted hearts. Some fight for them. I am something like a psychologist here. I hear what they don't tell others. The stories of their broken hearts and that of others. I am puzzled by the amount of love they can feel, but I can recognise the fear everybody of my generation and younger seem to have of love.
I left my marriage a year ago never understanding what it really meant to leave. I never wanted anyone to have so much power over me. So I was married but I was never fully there. Not that I knew that consciously. Did I ever understand what it meant? I am not sure. I am not even sure I understand it now. I know I have been searching for rescue all over the path. In Gods, Goddesses, silences dances and eventually in Love.
I loved an Israeli in secret. I never wrote about it. It was a fairy tale like. A fairy tale like the rare ones you hear in Palestine. And as a fairy tale they can only exist in our imaginations. I crossed the world for it. And when I was finally there I was met by despair. I just needed to go away. I could not stay. I just needed to go. It was a palpable fear. A lack of air. A feeling of being a burden. A fear of possibly being abandoned and so I left while I could.
There is this stupidity about fear. It makes you generalise. It makes you less empirical and feel safe. I left and I suffered all the pain I could not even grasp where it came from during this year. The pain of my abandoned marriage, of my lost academic life, my house... It felt like I had been uprooted, so it was easier for me to relate to travellers and to refugees. The only big difference is that while refugees have a clear enemy..mine was never going to leave me, it would go with me everywhere I went.
And that is why I understand why some Palestinians marry other women they do not care about. It is because though they are not afraid of bombs, fasting when is incredibly hot, or the war they are terrified, like me, of Love. Some lucky ones among you might not understand it. But those of you who do know what I am talking about know how our brains can just flee any situation. While they escape to live temporarily safer lives instead of paying the price of real truthful commitment. While in the west we entertain ourselves with other relationships, in the middle east they marry someone else.
But not Sam... Sam marry young, and according to him, for all of the wrong reasons, and so he divorced her. And then he married an American even though he had always loved for the past 18 years the same woman. A woman who would not say yes to a divorced man, nor would she say yes to anyone else.
In the middle east love is like the earth...it belongs to someone forever, and you either fight for it or it will destroy your life and someone else's. And now after, 18 years, we wait for that one call which is to settle for good whether the woman Sam, now divorced again, always has loved would accept him or not as her husband.
We are tense. Sam is tense. He can barely contain his anxiety. We seat waiting. Seconds .. Maybe minutes but the weight of the years weigh in the air. But suddenly all the heaviness seems to lift up and be replaced by enormous agitation in the air. I still have not heard it, but I feel the particles dancing around me. That huge tall man is under uncontrollable joy. The answer is yes!
Not a yes that was said by her. She could not speak to him. Her brothers, and nephews were giving the answer that was given to them. That is how it is how it happens here. Sam is over the moon. Now that the men have agreed to it that would be much harder for her to change her mind about getting married. He wants to marry yesterday. It is Ramadan so things must wait.
Aida, his mom, is over the moon she has accompanied this love story for the past 18 years. Now it was her turn to visit the lady bringing gifts. The lady was very happy I was told. Every person is happy. I am invited for the wedding. I go buy clothes with them. I feel a mixture of total admiration and just awe.
I needed so much to be rescued like that in this past year. I needed so much a god, goddess or a man to rescue me from myself. But now I look in admiration. I can admire it, but I am fine. There is something true about time. There was something soothing about me waking my parents in the middle of the night and hoping to sleep with them on a broken foot. An internal agitation that never seemed to leave me. I remember my father just saying half asleep noticing my pain, saying calmly that " It will pass".
It did. I am now in the Middle East and I still travel but now I have a home. It did not depend of God or a man. It is inside creating itself. Sometimes I loose it. Sometimes I run outside but it is creating itself. And when I see Sam's joy I admire the commitment to it rather of letting my cynicism win the argument. When I hear of the Palestinians who married someone else as a form of revenge, of self-preservation I feel sad. And in this deeply religious and contested place the only prayer I can possibly utter is one to love. I rarely pray but when I do I pray that I too learn to be patient and that I never let my mind leave when all that I am wants to stay.
I want you all to always remember that I am not a Middle East, Palestinian or Israeli expert. I am not hoping to say that what I say can represent the whole of the people of anywhere. People vary a lot everywhere, but they especially do here in the Middle East. Remember always when you read me that these are but the experiences of a woman who crossed the wall a few times and in her path encountered the people she did.
It is but my experience with strangers that through the journey have become friends. Whatever ideological or political beliefs you come from remember that we must always be more empirical about what we think to be true. I am not saying this is Palestinian or this Is Israeli, I am just telling you what happened to m when I encountered these specific human beings.
Now that I have taken this out of my chest I will write about what it is like for a 30 year old separated women to travel in the middle east after already having been here before. First it is to be taken to be a friend. In my particular case, with my previous abandoned PhD research it also means to avoid whenever I can political conversations. Which is to me almost impossible. It means that most people ask you about babies, and husbands. And that they all wish you all the best, which here means a family.
It means that being sick in the house of the family of my Russian Jewish friend Maya, or sick in the house of the family of my Palestinian friend Sam is basically almost the same. They are 100% of their time changing everything around for me to feel better. And also that when my natural feeling of wanting to go away to not disturb them even more are usually met with shock. They hold me, comfort me, and tell me I can always stay.
That is how yesterday after fasting another day I ended spending the day in the living room with the two brothers (in their twenties) of my friend Sam and Aida his mom. It is hot in Nablus and I enjoy fasting even though they tell me to eat and drink bc I am not Muslim. I explain I am doing it to recover from being sick and they accept it even though they don't understand it. Then I show pictures of Brasil on my Facebook to Aida, and her sons. We attempt some conversation and little by little I no longer need language.
We lay down in a mattress in the living room. It is hot. Then her sons show me songs in Arabic they like on youtube. Songs about what happened to a rapper who did too much drugs and his family collapsed, then Bob Marley, and they finish by showing me Lady in Red. There is something incredibly cute about these beautiful tall Palestinian men being moved by the songs they are. And when it is time to break the fast we all gather around a table.
I had not eaten for 24 hours and today I feel good. I seat around the table. Yahyah, who I knew from before, has now gotten married. He brings his wife and we eat. Bread, lentil soup, Hummus, Babaganoush, falafel, zaatar bread, salad and some other things I cant remember the name of.
They laugh, talk, eat. They translate to me. I practice the little Arabic I know. We use my Iphone to show images of things I don't know how to explain. Coffee is served and I who love the smell of cardamon refrain from it. I am fasting and have been taking coffee totally out. It is hard. Extremely hard. We have some arabic desert and then we go into town.
Have you ever been to a Muslim place in Ramadan? The night is precious. Here The temperature cools down. There are children running everywhere. Couples hold hands. There are bands playing traditional songs. There are Palestinian flags. Lots of street vendors selling coffee that the cardamom seems to carry you flying like in a cartoon. Corn with spices. Almonds. Nuts. Meat and who knows what else. Shops are opened. Balloons fly in the air people and cars walk in the street and you hear the joy of people.
My friend and I talk about their lives. How did he meet his wife. Whether he is happy. I ask them if they get upset I was in love with an Israeli. They say it does not matter for them because I come to both sides of the wall. But that talk brings us back to the many talks we had before about the region. We talk of Syria and they assert no one really knows what is going on in Syria. I ask them if they think there will be another war just like my Brazilian journalist friend had told me before and they say they don't think now , but that they think that eventually it will happen.
I ask them if they are not scared of it. They are not. And I cant really assess if they don't think it will affect them, or if because they have experience with the Intifada and the conflict between Hamas and Fatah they are just used to it. Used to the possible enormous violence towards them? they know I don't understand and they explain to me that they don't complain that they just go on living as this is all we can do.
We reach home. And I go to bed and I fall asleep. I am suddenly awaken by explosions. If I were in Brasil I would think they were firecrackers. Here I just don't know. I hear cars racing. And a siren. it is all so close to my window. I am terrified. Is this a war? Is this the IDF coming in the middle of the night? Fights between different parties?
The more I hears cars racing the more scared I am. I am so close to the window and to scared to look up. But as there is nothing you can do I write. I call my friends in vain. After a while I stand and I walk to the living room where Aida sleeps during Ramadan. When I get there I see her sleeping deeply.
I still don't know if it is a war, or celebrations of ramadan. Yet somehow I realise like I had in Bolivia when every single Bolivian passenger slept while we almost fell in a precipice that humans get used to anything. Somehow my fear eventually vanishes as well, my heart slows down and I too not knowing what is happening in the Middle East fall asleep.
I wake up with a call from my friend to tell me it had been nothing. It seemed so distant now. Another day was starting I squat to shower feeling happy that today Aida would teach me how to cook Mahalabia a desert I adore. Yes, that is what people do, they just keep living. Love, Me
There's barely anything as pleasurable for me as to squat on the ground and let water gently swim down my back as if it was a gentle caress. I still remember how my first bucket shower ( while I volunteered in Thailand ) went from total dislike to becoming my favourite activity of the day. I remember how the hot bucket shower available in the himalaya mountains in Ladakh put a smile from ear to ear on my face. There the bucket was given to me with boiling water and I decided with the cold water available in the bathroom which temperature I wanted it to slide down my body. It usually made me remember how little pressure, knobs and water we need to have a wonderful time.
And so tonight, the water, I chose to be cold. I let it pour down my exhausted body in this hot sunny day. I had never imagined this morning I would be sleeping where I am now. I have been on and off sick since I arrived in the middle east. I went from being totally cared by my Israeli friend Maya to suddenly be totally cared by my Palestinians friends on this side of the wall. But when I woke up I knew none of it. I just left Maya to go back to the place I am officially staying in Tel Aviv but as I reached the station I decided to take a bus to Jerusalem.
I love Jerusalem, where even the newest tram can create confusion in the minds of those who live in this city known to so many for so many thousands of years. As I stood close to the machine under a boiling sun watching religious of all kinds pass one in front of the other. As I heard them have discussions ( I could not understand) with tourists, and soldiers while being "helped" by some kind of worker (whose job seemed to be to take the money of a few people to buy the tickets for them rendering the automatic , self-service machine useless and taking longer than a counter )I had to laugh....It somehow felt suddenly that I was back in the middle east.
I met a friend in the beautiful mahane yehuda which is one of my favourite markets in the world. As I walked through it I just wanted to stay in Jerusalem forever! I remembered every friend that disliked Jerusalem and I thought they must not know the secret details. I realised within seconds they probably feel the same about me. The truth is that in all its chaos I love Jerusalem for its incoherence.
My friend invited me to stay but somehow I knew where I was going. I promised to come back but since my feet knew where to walk to I took the path. I was coming to Nablus in the West Bank. I knew where to find the bus, I knew how to go from Ramallah to Nablus without having to figure out where the bus station was. I walked the whole time remembering how all too strange and difficult it had felt the first time I came. I knew no one, i knew not my path, my Israeli friends were terrified I was coming here alone. But I just came. I confess, that as I walked I felt some slight pride for that stranger so much stronger and braver than I am today. It has been a while since I don't try for the first time an unknown language, and an unknown shower.
It is Ramadan and I am once again in a Muslim place. Not eating to get better had not been understood by my Israeli friends, nor is it here. Luckily, it is Ramadan and I am not the only one fasting.
27hours of fasting and no desire for food even inside of Mahane Yehuda That is how sick I have been. But when the Harira breaks, and the fasting of Ramadan has been suspended till is morning... When all your friends are around a table to drink their first sip of the day, to eat there is no way you can resist it even if you are sick. I sat and I ate. Close to the whole family of my friends I sat listening to conversations in Arabic I don't understand with joy. I looked a mother next to her adult children talk and laugh. We attempted conversation in her few english words, and my barely non existing arabic. And once again I remembered how much we can get trapped in distant discussions where we know so well the language. There in a "real talk", in one that your barely understand, you seem to get more. You seem to put more effort into listening. Or maybe you just observe all else that language would have stolen from you. I broke my fast with these all too familiar faces. I did not understand them but they knew me. I had been here before.
And then yet not feeling great I squat to shower. I remember all the other times I had squatted before. I feel thankful I am here. I feel happy to have reencountered these people I met around the world before. I once again remember the part of "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" where the author understands why his young son can't understand the beauty he sees in the birds on the road. The beauty he states lies on the fact that they are familiar and you recognise them. So I gently squat down remembering it all, all the places I have squatted before, all the joy that came from that act. I suddenly remembered how much joy I feel for having reencountered my friends. And in a all too familiar sentiment flushes back through me, I realise what is so obvious, that In both sides of this wall (that I hate so much) I feel anything else but love.
I seat in the TGV on our way from Paris to Marseilles. Seating in front of me is my 87 year old grandmother that no amount of complex problems in the beginning of our trip has shaken. Next to me is my 21 year old cousin, together we are going to travel Provence. Every year my grandmother says this is her last trip, but every year we see her looking happier and younger in these always beautiful but undoubtedly exhausting trips. So here we are enjoying the beauty of France.
As I mentioned in my last post I was supposed to meet my friend Yonathan who is a brilliant Israeli pianist. We did and It was an absolutely fascinating night.
We sat for a while in a little jazz cafe but then I suggested we walked. We met midnight in Paris, in the most agreeable summer night, and under a full moon.
We walked by the river bank of the Seine. We went down the stairs to get closer to it. We passed some young people drinking and smoking. We chose an empty bench to seat on and talk. Yonathan who is quiet and reserved was impressed by all the movement around.
We talked, and talked and suddenly a drunk man approached us saying something about the past thousand of years of human history. He had just interrupted me explaining my friend why I always talk to strangers...
I asked the man's name. Assab, if I am not mistaken. And then a long night started. The man carried a guitar on his back. He came from Ethiopia. He knew all there was to know about Semitic languages. He was drunk but he made full sense. It seemed sometimes like a dream. He explained he was a musician and that his grandfather was the brother of Haile Selassie's wife and did not want him to be a musician.
At first I did not take the talk so seriously but as he went further and further into the explanations of Ethiopian history I did no longer even care how true this was. Then he told me he had once played with Brazilian famous composer Gilberto Gil. Hearing this, yet not convinced, I asked him to take his guitar out and show us something from Ethiopia.
I was accompanied by an absolutely brilliant jazz pianist and somehow I did not expect what was about to happen.
We were by the river which was placid reflecting the lights and the beauty of Paris. We were surrounded by young French boys and girls of north African descent. They were drunk and smoking weed. they were loud. They were exactly what so many people are afraid of. They had this energy of youth wildness, mixed with economic frustration, and desperate unresolved cultural and national identities. They wanted to be French but not.
But once the Ethiopian took his guitar out and started to play in different Ethiopian languages little by little stillness came. The youngsters had come before that, seeing the guitar on his back they wanted him to go to their circle and play. Assab said he was going to play to us, if they wanted to listen they could, but that they should move.
It seemed a bit unreasonable logistically as we were 3 and this group alone had more than 10. They were unconvinced, and went back to their place. But as soon as Assab's voice suddenly started to float around the river bank we all became flabbergasted. We were suddenly all quiet. People started to move their little gangs towards us. Assab who could speak tigre, tigrinya, amharic, arabic, and so many other languages played the sound of Africa .
And then came a Moroccan from the desert. He was a gorgeous black man looking incredibly Gnawan. He was carrying what looked like to be a guitar case. The group around us begged him to stop. He seemed to be famous in Paris, maybe in Africa as well. He hesitated but listening to Assab music he did.
He opened his case to take out a Gimbri (three stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa) people. Suddenly, we were making music. My Israeli friend took out a flute that had broken out but in his music genius he could still steal some melody out of it. The beautiful African girl next to me joined the songs in new invented melodic lines. I sang in Portuguese over the Ethiopian, desert, Gnawan sounds
The boy who looked like the sharpest and angriest at first suddenly said
" I never imagined this morning I would have such gift this night."
Neither had I.
North Africans greeted themselves in their Salem aleikums . They often wondered where I came from. I asked them to guess. They guessed I was Italian usually. Yonathan, my Israeli friend, was usually taken to be Arabic. Assab when confronted with Yonathan being an Israeli Jew said
" Oh well, I am also originally Jewish and then history takes place. Invasions, expansions , conversions. it does not matter really, does it?"
Assab was a fascinating character and I did not expect anything else from him. I was however surprised when seating in between Yonathan and Ahmad.
Ahmad was loud, extremely tribal about being north african. He greeted with extreme joy other north africans, and stronger joy and noise Moroccans. I sat there wondering what would happen when that talk would come.. As I just knew it would.
There was something fascinating about the fact that they all felt it was very important reinforcing similarity between these people coming from different places but it happened together with cherishing the culture of where they came from. I wondered now surrounded by predominantly North African Muslims how they would act to Yonathan once they found out he was from Israel.
I was not scared or worried, I was just curious. Yonathan is not like me who just talks to people so I also wondered how he felt about being there. And then suddenly the question came. Ahmad asked me where was Yonathan from.
I told him to guess and he said " Arabia"
Some silence stood still and then
" Palestinian?" ahmed asked
There was some probably millisecond of silence but it seemed like ages. I thought of the irony of it... People cant even tell these differences looking. They can only identify labels...
" No. I am Jewish, yemenite descendent."
Ahmad smiled took his hand out in Yonathan's direction and said
"Salem my friend".
Yonathan shook his hand. It was a hand shake that happen above me, it happen crossing my body.
And that crossing made my thoughts meddle. As a result of my last post I got answers that made me think about that hand shake over my body. A Brazilian friend of mine who comes from an elite in Brasil told me she thought I was looking the world through an Western European academic point of view where labels mattered. She thought in Brazil that was not the case.
I argued that maybe not to us because we had been blind by being always part of a Brazilian elite. We had never had to think about whether their was any consequence being what we were, but that was not true for all Brazilians. it was a consequence of being an elite. I agreed with her that studying in The western world had probably modified me, but I often think it is more in the sense that I am capable to see these labels now, not that I create and impose them. I could, of course, be wrong
Then I received a message from another Brazilian friend who thanked me for writing the last post. She told me she understood it well as she was Lebanese descendent in both sides.
As I sat under this crossing of hands I thought about it. There was some sense of acknowledgement of difference and acceptance to it at the same time. But there was this huge silence just before and though and I wondered why I felt no fear. I realise a part of it is due to me being Me (.always trusting...) But the other huge came from me being Brazilian. And on that case, like in most others in my life, It meant nothing. Not nothing as in a pejorative sense but in the great sense of all, the one of being allowed to let people be empirical as the national label you carry is in this case quite politically neutral.
I sat in between a Muslim Moroccan who did not com from a Moroccan elite, and an Israeli Jewish brilliant jazz piano player. And I realised that silence I did not fear carried with it a million of possible old as time prejudices. And when the smile and handshake came I thanked the music. I thanked the shared time we had all spent before we identified our labels. And then listening to the Ethiopian song in the background I thought of the thousands of years of human history that started my conversation wi both Assab and Yonathan. In these thousand of years humans have always been trying to reconcile this desire to be particular and cherish their own kind while at the same time encountering others. It is so good when both happen simultaneously in music. Even better if you are by the Seine and the moon is full.