The sun has just set and Rosh ha-Shana, the Jewish New Year, has begun. Dinur very wittily calls Christmas “National Jews Go to The Movies Day.” I thought he might get a kick out of the role reversal. Although I must confess I was very able to empathize before, having spent many years of my life in a Muslim country. Ramadan, in particular, was impressed on my mind. Experiencing someone else’s dominant religion is always interesting. I think it’s actually `Eid al-Fitr today as well. Gotta love the lunar calendar.
From my perspective, Rosh ha-Shana will be like the Sabbath on steroids. Everything will shut down for the weekend, including the bus system. I have no idea if the movie theaters will actually be open. Of course, this is a cultural difference predicated not on religion, but on dedication to capitalism. I look forward to all these vestiges pre-capitalist society vanishing in some near future. Between this sort of thing and Ramadan, studying the Middle East is nigh near intolerable. Surely religious minorities everywhere ought to be able to enjoy the American freedom of going to the movies on majority religion feast days…
Of course, I’m thinking a lot about identity here in Tel Aviv. I remember when I worked at the Texas state senate as a messenger. This was the summer of ‘93. Once, Senator Armbrister, who was a very nice man and very easy to work with, asked me if I were “the Jewish messenger.”
I stared at him rather blankly and said, “No Senator, I’m Catholic.” It hadn’t dawned on me that my “look” might have contributed to the decision to hire me until that very moment. Likewise, it hadn’t dawned on good Senator Armbrister (who is really a very nice man to work with) that I wasn’t Jewish. Of course, if I were, how would I have answered that question? Given that I know Senator Armbrister is a very nice man, how must identity work in his mind for him to even ask the question?
Needless to say, I am deeply aware of the fact that I look really Jewish. I’ve been told this since puberty when my nose swelled up like a balloon. Of course, at the time, I simply assumed it was because most Texans are too stupid to tell an Arab from a Jew. While there is some (small) truth in this judgment, it is not the correct interpretation in this case.
You see, I remember the first time in Jordan that someone thought I was an Israeli. This was back in the ’95-’96 school year, when I was on Fulbright. I was completely psychologically unprepared for this moment. I was a lot younger then and hadn’t the first clue that I was a homosexual. I took identity for granted back then. I was in Jerash (the tourist site in Jordan that, unlike Petra, is really worth seeing, IMHO). I was laying on my back in one of the stage entrances to the Roman coliseum, taking a photo of how the ceiling’s corner had been constructed. Yes, I’m a geek and yes, I love Roman architecture. Sue me. The security guards looked at me with a marked hostility. One asked the other in Arabic, “What’s he doing?”
The other said, “Oh, he’s just taking a photo of the corner.” They both sounded contemptuous. I immediately greeted them in Arabic. Talal’s Lesson One of Third World Dictatorship Etiquette: always be polite to the cops. They both gave me a nasty stare and walked off.
I was absolutely floored. People don’t give you nasty looks for no reason in Jordan. People are friendly. And being polite and speaking Arabic seemed to make matters worse, which isn’t usually the case in Jordan. I was stunned. When I got to the Temple of Diana, people also gave me dirty looks. This sort of thing usually doesn’t happen in Jordan (especially if you are male, which solves 93 percent of your Arab world problems, very sadly). When I got to the nyphaeum, some kids had climbed to the top and shouted down at me, “Shalom!”
Shalom? I thought, dumbstruck. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Oh my God! They think I’m an Israeli! I was quite distressed. I expected this in Texas. I never guessed it could happen in Jordan. I really look like a Jew, I thought, even to other Arabs! I spent an impassioned fifteen minutes trying to persuade these kids that I was from Fuheis. I speak damned good Arabic with a real Arab accent. On my best day in Jordan, I went about 25 minutes chatting with a cabbie before we got to talking about something complex and he realized that my Arabic wasn’t native and asked, “Where are you from?” As that’s usually the first word out of the cabbie’s mouth in the Arab world, I am deeply proud of that statistic. But I wasn’t making any sales with these kids. I was an Israeli tourist in my own goddamned county (or one of them, anyway).
And here in Israel? I fit right in unless someone asks to see my passport. Being a quarter Swedish, having bluish eyes and a lighter complexion than most Arabs apparently has its advantages in Israel. After they’ve seen me twice, security guards often wave me through without further inspection. This floors me. There’s lots of security here, but I can’t say their commitment impresses me. I don’t understand why these guys make people here feel safer.
I’m pretty sure that I’d be treated differently here in Israel if I really looked really Arab. This has its ironies. Last week, when I was at the supermarket, two of the stockers were talking near the front of the store. They were speaking Arabic. I watched them with a little longing. Even though lots of people speak English here, it’s rough being in an all-Hebrew environment. Let’s face it: `ivrit sheli stinks! Well, the Palestinian stocker stared me down quite violently. I didn’t stop smiling, but I looked away, as I didn’t want to get into a fight. Undoubtedly, he learned young to stand up for himself and wasn’t going to take some Jew looking down on him. But I wasn’t some Jew. I was an Arab, like him. And I wasn’t looking down on him. I was thinking how awesome it was that he was speaking Arabic, how “at home” hearing that familiar language in this foreign place was. But of course, starting a conversation would have been intensely awkward. I’m some Jewish-looking gay bearish guy standing in line with my domestic partner at a Tel Aviv supermarket. Who the hell would believe I’m an Arab? What would an Arab be doing here, if not working as a stocker? And after the second intifada even that is way less likely.
The more I study violent identity conflict, the more I realize that all the clichés are true. Many, many people in different societies are people of good will. The trite truism is true. It’s just that the in-group, out-group distinction is more basic and prior to that good will. When you leave the sphere of hanging out only with people you knew and grew up with, identity is determined by markers that allow you to slot the individual. The rationalization of the capitalist economy teaches us over and over again that no system of markers is foolproof. I slip under the markers here quite easily until someone looks at my passport, which isn’t often. Haim Gal, the archivist here, thinks that with my beard, I look like a rabbi.
The rationalization of identity and technology leads to bizarre situations. I have had my first experiences with computer support here in Israel. Our internet died, so my landlady hooked me up to Hot, the Israeli cable provider. The woman I spoke to was named Manar. She was an Arab Israeli, but spoke no Arabic. Just Hebrew and excellent English. She lives in (what’s left of) Palestine and I speak better Arabic than she does. The second time I had to call up, my service rep was Palestinian woman whose name I forget, but only spoke Hebrew and Arabic. I’m quite proud of the fact that I made it through a long customer service call in Arabic and actually got our internet back up. In fact, what was entertaining was that we both had to make reference to English words, as the operating system was in English. Moreover, she called a computer a mikhshav not a hasub (extra linguistic points if you figured out that both words actually have the same root—see, I told you I was a geek!). It was the ultimate postmodern moment. An Israeli-Arab helping an Arab-American get his internet connection back up, her using her standardized call center politeness, and us throwing three languages around. She and Manar had asked me where I was from as part of the conversation. I asked the second woman where she was from, and she responded, “Ana min Hot…” (I’m from Hot). I told her I understood. Yeah, her answering that question for real could lead her to a lot of compromising situations. I hadn’t meant to be rude. Not that she treated me as if I had been. She was a smoothie and well-versed in call center etiquette.
Never in my life could I have anticipated this bizarre, syncretic set of conversations!
The place where people sometimes do get a little funny about me is actually in the archive. You see, everyone there knows that I’m an Arab. I think that’s a little weird for them. Of course, I would imagine that not many Arabs have come there to read the Arabic newspapers. The same papers that are collected so assiduously there are for the most part forbidden at a Palestinian university like Beir Zeit. I’d like to be sanctimonious and leave it at that, but many aren’t available at Arab universities anywhere, thanks to our fine Arab commitment to sad little dictatorships with no sound economic development policy (not that I’m bitter). This lack of open library stacks, after all, that was what drove me to come to Israel in the first place.
My second or third day there, Mikha, the guy who assists Haim, was moving several boxes of papers back to the stacks. Apparently they had just been scanning a large stack of Filistin, Palestine’s leading paper through the mandate that kept printing in Jerusalem up through ’67. Of course, those of you with a little Arabic know that the word Palestine is a Latin corruption of the word Filistin. So when moving the boxes he threw them down in a joking way and said in Arabic, bir-ruh, bid-dam, nafdi ya-filistin! This is a Ba`thist chant that usually ends with the word “Saddam” or “Hafiz” (and now, I suspect, Bashar)—in the soul, in the blood, we will sacrifice, O [INSERT BA`THIST LEADER HERE]. I gave Micha what I hope was the strangest look. “Well that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?”
“Maybe if you’re a Ba`thist…” I said.
Little things to test my reactions. People greet me in Arabic with this sort of weird air about them, as if they weren’t quite sure how to respond to my presence. I mean, when I learned Hebrew, I did assume that it would be used for more than an occasional sports-related conversation with Dinur (which, lazy student that I am, I don’t do enough of). Perhaps they only learned Arabic to read the newspapers. I mean, there are lots of Arabs nearby. One of the janitors working in that very building was a Palestinian woman (she got engaged just before Craig and I left the country). But apparently me being there among the Arabic newspapers is as weird for them as for me. In a way it’s reassuring that I’m not the only one who’s a little edgy in this situation.
One of the undergraduates walked up to me the other day and showed me a political cartoon in a March 2002 issue of ash-Sharq al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned Arabic daily out of London. You’ll recall that this was the time at which the “Arab Peace Initiative” was advanced by the League of Arab States—an offer of complete recognition and normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for complete withdrawal to the 1948 borders. The cartoon was a picture of the Arab League building with all of the flags of the Arab states in front of it hanging at half-mast. He asked for “the interpretation of an American researcher.”
Yeah, right, I thought. My American aura is what brought you here. But maybe it was. Who knows? The question, however, seemed quite loaded to me. After all, from the Israeli vantage point, the cartoon was not flattering.
I did what a scholar should do in such circumstances, which is to give a genuine interpretation. So I told him, “They’re mourning the death of pan-Arabism.” This seemed to surprise the student a little, so I explained. “The Arab-Israeli conflict is viewed as a zero-sum conflict by both sides. Any possible compromise must be viewed in that framework. The Arab League made an offer to recognize Israel. This is tantamount to admitting defeat, especially after the Arab failure to create political unity after the collapse of the UAR. From that time forward, the only real project that expressed pan-Arab sentiment was the liberation of Palestine. An offer to accept Israel in the 1948 borders is a tacit admission of defeat. The pan-Arab project was a failure.”
The student seemed taken aback. I said to him, “For what it’s worth, the Israelis rejected the offer out of hand, adding insult to injury. For them, of course, this gesture wasn’t nearly enough. In a zero-sum conflict, compromise is rarely a viable means to a solution. I don’t know if you know any American history, but there was this guy named Henry Clay—”
“—the Great Compromiser!” the student finished. “Yes, I know him!” I must admit that I was quite impressed. Most of my students don’t know who David Ben-Gurion was, let alone someone a little more second-tier like Levi Eshkol. This kid has read enough American history to know who Henry Clay was and speaks English. While analyzing a cartoon doesn’t suggest Arabic skills, he may well have those as well. Most of my students are not bilingual. Most people in Tel Aviv seem to be. As our education system declines into the sewer, I can’t help being a little envious.
“Well, then you know at the end of the day, all the compromises failed and we had a civil war. Compromise doesn’t work in zero-sum conflicts.” I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to prove that. It might make an interesting research project.
“You don’t think it could be the League mourning the deaths of the Arabs who died in the Intifada?” he asked.
“Well, I guess anything is possible, but this image isn’t the most direct way to express that sentiment. Why would you need the Arab League building in the picture if you weren’t trying to say something about the institution itself?”
He thought for a while. Apparently he had been attached to his previous interpretation, which suggests that perhaps he hadn’t brought the article to test my politics after all. “I see your point. It is a better way of looking at it,” he said. He nodded and walked away.
The last image I had is of my landlady. Craig and I had wondered, after getting a good look at the Tel Aviv, if receiving the apartment in the state we had received it was par for the course. After meeting Raya, we’re pretty sure that it is. She seems like a very nice and sincere woman. Craig and I both liked her immensely. She asked in out forty minute, delightful conversation in the kitchen, if Craig and I were going to go to Jordan. I told her that I thought it might be awkward, as I really wasn’t out to my father’s family.
“They wouldn’t be accepting?”
“I don’t even know if they have any clear way of getting their heads around it. We don’t formally exist in their culture.”
She nodded. She clearly understood the tragic nature of what I felt. She told me about her brother and his American partner who live in Toronto, where they can be legally married. Her dad had trouble accepting her brother’s homosexuality for many years. “Such a small thing to make such a big deal about,” she said.
Ellis said it might be hard on me. Ellis was right.
But I don't want to end on that note. Craig and I are getting used to Tel Aviv. In many ways, it has been easy. For example—
See? They clearly knew we were coming. Craig and I couldn’t resist buying lemon-scent Fairy for all our manual dishwashing needs.