Today, I had a stressful day.
I lost my debit card in the Golan Heights, my phone’s data plan stopped working, and I had a long bureaucratic meeting at the Ministry of Absorption. And that was all before noon.
It ended up working out, but I just felt exhausted and stressed. So, as has become my custom, I went for a walk by the beach. I called my friend Jack in Minnesota to wish him a happy birthday and made my way down the boardwalk to Yafo.
I miss Yafo. I’ve since moved to a new apartment in another part of town, but I used to live right by this beautiful 10,000 year old city. Every time I went, I just felt the stress lifted off my shoulders as I stared at the Mediterranean, listened to the waves, and talked with the people.
After eating some delicious schwarma, I headed to the Abouelafia bakery, site of my first in-depth Arabic conversation in Israel which you can read about here. I was in desperate need of a good talk with my friend Adnan but instead I found his much younger coworker Sager who I had met with him.
When I first met Sager a few weeks ago, he was quiet. I tried to engage, but Adnan and I did most of the talking and Sager looked uninterested.
When I came back this time, from the second our eyes met, Sager looked excited to see me.
He invited me in and we got to talking.
Over the past week, there has been rioting in Yafo. There have been Arabs protesting against the police, sometimes violently. I honestly don’t know all the details because I hate listening to the news.
Sager didn’t wait one moment to tell me his opinion. He is an Arab Muslim. He is from East Jerusalem. And in his experience, the police do ethnically profile here and it is quite unpleasant. At the same time, he is furious with the protestors, who are burning things and causing problems. He feels that they are unnecessarily damaging relations between Arabs and Jews, who he views as brothers. In addition, he is concerned for the livelihood of the bakery’s owners and his own job. If Jews and tourists are afraid to visit Yafo, then there won’t be any business. This pain will also hurt the dozens of Arab businesses in the area.
We talked about our shared hatred for extremism on all sides. How the rest of the world likes to obsess over every last problem between Israel and the Palestinians but the world is silent when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are butchered. I shared with him an Arabic poem I wrote in the Golan overlooking the Syrian border, which he loved. In his words, the Golan Heights it the most beautiful place on the planet and I think I agree with him.
We talked about what it’s like to be a minority. Most Jewish Israelis don’t know what it is to be a minority as a Jew. Part of that is a good thing- it’s a product of Zionism and it’s part of the blessing of having one small place on this planet where we are normal. Part of it is problematic- I think some folks here have lost sight of the Jewish experience and the sensitivity we’ve often had for other minorities. My minority identity, which was undoubtedly a burden in the U.S., is to my advantage here. I can enjoy all the blessings of a validated identity while showing empathy and kindness to the minorities I share this country with.
In between us singing Nancy Ajram and dancing dabke together (yes, this actually happened), Sager thanked me for speaking Arabic with him. Our whole conversation was in Arabic and while, like in any second language you speak, there were times I didn’t remember this or that word, we got our points across. My speaking Arabic has made living in Israel a much, much richer experience and frankly I think every Israeli should speak it. A fifth of the population already speaks it as a native language, not to mention our millions of Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Lebanese neighbors. You don’t have to speak it perfectly to speak it well- give it a shot. When you speak to someone in their language, their heart opens up. You will do more for peace by getting to know your neighbors than any lobbying effort or protest.
Finally, as we wrapped up, I wanted to head home and get some rest after a long day. I kept trying to pay, but he was attending to other customers. I was getting a little annoyed but he’s a good guy so I waited.
Then the sirens came. Firetrucks and police cars drove by, racing down the street and wailing. Sager told me they were dealing with the protestors again. Our hearts sunk for a moment.
Honestly, I felt pretty safe. In fact, I felt safer than in most areas of D.C. where I am originally from. Yeah I might choose to read the news a bit more, but also I might not. There’s some sense of tranquility with just being able to live in the moment and trust your instincts.
My instincts said that Sager was a good guy. I tried to pay for the baklava but he just nodded his head and told me to take it for free. We smiled at each other, gave each other a bro-ish high five, and I grabbed a cab home (better not to mess with buses when there’s rioting).
That’s Israel for you. Intercultural dialogue. Baklava. Racial profiling. Rioting. Sirens. Kindness. Brotherhood.
You can have your quiet suburb of Kansas City. I’ll take a place where a piece of baklava means so much more than Baskin Robbins.