A Warm Welcome
Tel Aviv, Israel
It had been five years since I last visited Israel. Assaulted by the heat upon exiting the airplane, I wondered what I was doing here. "Israel in August? Madness." they said, and as usual, they were right. Still, I could not suppress my glee as I walked down the jetway and once again entered the colourful, multicultural, exciting and hectic mess that is the modern Jewish State. After a quick background check that mainly involved dirty looks and a phone call to my grandmother, sufficiently convinced that I didn't secretely hold an Israeli passport the Immigration Services released me into the wild.
Should my readers, in the unlikely event that there are any, wonder what exactly brings me to Israel in the steamy month of August, the story is as follows. For my masters in anthropology, I am required to do research in the field for a period of around six months. I thought long and hard about a topic, and finally found something that combined my interests in civil-military relations, Jewish-Israeli culture, and partying. I would study the massive exodus to India of recently discharged Israeli soldiers that takes place every year in the tens of thousands. These Israelis would be my natives, or savages if you prefer, and I would study them like a modern day Malinowski during their daily activities in India such as drinking chai and smoking hashish. However, I decided to first spend a month in Israel in order to improve my rather shoddy Hebrew.
After my release, confidently grabbing my pack from the luggage carrousel, it was time to visit my grandmother. After a detour via Haifa that took an hour and a half, I finally arrived at the nursing home. I initially did not recognize her in the distance, as her hair had turned white since I last saw her, but we finally fell into each other arms mumbling greetings. My days in 'Bayit Ba'Kfar', as the home was called, were largely uneventful, filled mostly with eating hummous and talking to my grandmother. Finding ways to sneak out for a cigarette offered some diversion, as did the Shabat dinner with aunt and cousins. These long, calm days offered a period of reflection, and a peek into the inner workings of my psyche if you will. Terrified by what I found there, I quickly fled to the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv.
Israelis, on the whole, are a charming, generous and handsome people, but they will be the first to tell you politeness is not high on their agenda. This does have the advantage, however, that you yourself can be a little less polite than usual. A telling, but not representative, example is the interaction I had with the keeper of a cellphone shop in Dizengof Center. After making me wait 2.5 hours for my new Sim card and then having the nerve to say I was making the problem, we had words at a rather elevated tone. The conversation ended with me telling him his shop was the s***tiest one I had ever encountered, to which he replied with a series of rude gestures. I believe the exchange was deeply satisfying for both of us.
The hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv soothed me somewhat, as did the large chunk of Lebanese hashish I acquired. After spending some time in the north and center of the city, which were both very comfortable stays, I arrived at my cousin's house in the south. The south of Tel Aviv is wildly different from the other areas. It is the territory of the Israeli Arabs, close as it is to Yafo, as well as that of hippies, artists and gay people. I find it by far the most interesting part of the city. Seeing its beach at sunset for the first time, decorated with Arabic architecture and accompanied by the muezzin's call for evening prayer, was a deeply moving experience. Recently reinvented as the 'Soho' of Tel Aviv, it is still the economically weaker area.
Sitting in a café in the Arab part of the city, not a yard away from two rather affectionate male lovers, listening in on artistic conversations and stealing internet from a connection called 'queer-net', it's easy to see what makes Israel, and especially Tel Aviv, the fascinating place that it is. It is a strange anachronism, preserved somehow through time but exposed to changes that have left it almost unrecognizable. An amalgam of apparent contradictions, it combines the young and the old, the ancient and new, Judaism, globalization and modernization, in a fascinating and exciting way. Unfortunately, the splendid cultural and social diversity Israel as a nation displays has always been overshadowed by the specter of war. However, this too, gives its society a unique, if not easily understood, cultural character.
And here ends my first ever blog entry. Please check back for more if you're interested. I'll be heading to India for 4.5 months september 2nd.