A 2:00 am Arabic lesson

I spent all day looking at (five) apartments and was exhausted!  I treated myself to a stroll along the beach until I found myself in Yafo, my favorite place to get away.

I grabbed a delicious melon ice cream, served in a frozen melon, and grabbed a seat outside.  Nearby there was a young Arab kid named Muhammad.  We struck up a conversation in a mix of Hebrew and Arabic and I asked if I could sit with him.

Muhammad is a 25 year old tow-truck driver from Kfar Qasem, incidentally the village where my friend Sara is from from a previous story I shared on my blog.  Much like my beloved Daliat Al Karmel and Yafo itself, certain towns seem to find their way into my heart over and over again.  American Jews would call that bashert.

He’s a sweet kid- he speaks fluent Hebrew and Arabic…and Turkish!  He’s gone on a half dozen trips to Turkey and is going for a month again this year.  He was even recommending resorts and cities for me to visit there.  He learned his Turkish from soap operas.  It’s nice to know that both Jews and Arabs do that here (so many Jews here speak Spanish thanks to telenovelas).

Because this is Israel, things quickly got personal.  Nice to know that intense sharing about deeply held opinions when you first meet someone isn’t just a Jewish trait here!  Muhammad says that when he first talks to Jewish customers over the phone, they are so relieved that their car will get off the road and back to safety that they offer to make him tea and invite him over.  Then, when he arrives to help them and they see his face, the conversation freezes and he feels they are afraid of him “cutting off their heads”.

I told him I thought that was sad, and then his response was even sadder: “I’ve gotten used to it, it’s always been that way.”  You know there’s some real toxicity to heal from here when a young man like this feels resigned to the mutual distrust that exists between so many Jews and Arabs here.

At this point he leans over to pull up something on Youtube.

While he’s pulling up the video, his friend Mamdooh tells me about his family.  His family arrived from Libya during a war with Italy and lives in Ramle.  Yes, re-read that sentence about 10 times.  His Muslim Arab family arrived to present-day Israel 100 yeras ago from Libya.  I was baffled.  I had heard some about Arab labor migrations from neighboring countries to Ottoman (and Mandatory) Palestine, but never had I heard of his family’s 6,000 person Libyan clan in Ramle.  Apparently, his family and a neighboring family (keep in mind “family” means thousands of people) engaged in a several year blood feud resulting in 40+ deaths in the 1990s.  He said a sheikh intervened to end it, but even to this day it’d be too difficult to try to marry the other family.  I told him that sounded sad and he agreed with a gentle nod of the head.

As we munched on loads of malabi (which they of course gave me for free), Muhammad came back to show me the Youtube video.  It was an Arabic-subtitled Hebrew video (kind of like an Arab MEMRI) of a Haredi classroom talking about the Temple Mount.  Honestly, I couldn’t hear the video that well, but it was clear that racist things were being said about Arabs.  I told him that that video sounded offensive and that it’s also important not to judge entire groups of people based on one video.  I even had the chance to teach him about Reform Judaism.  I reminded him that there are closed-minded and open-minded people in every community.

“Like you” he said as I mouthed the words “open-minded”.

My heart swelled.  I’ve had a lot of powerful moments here in Israel.  Tonight may take the cake with this one comment.  I saw that I had made a difference in this one man’s life and it made me feel hopeful- and proud.

The conversation turned back to fun things- because in Israel, life fluctuates rapidly between the bitter and the sweetest of the sweet.  Muhammad showed me Youtube videos of techno dabke music from Nablus.  In a sentence that would suffice for a linguistic anthropology thesis, he said: “shoof al-dabke min Shchem”.  Look at the dabke from Shchem.  Which is to say, in an Arabic-language sentence, he used the Hebrew word for a Palestinian city in the West Bank/Samaria.

Before I headed home at 2am, Muhammad invited me to visit him in Kfar Qasem and we exchanged numbers.  He said he hangs out with his friends in Yafo pretty much every night- and told me to come back.

Some of you might know I speak eight languages fluently.  I speak a few more to varying degrees.  Throughout my life, there have been people telling me what I should do with them.  That I should work for the CIA or the FBI.  That I should be a translator.  That I should do this or that.

Guess what?  While you’re pondering what you think I should be doing with my life, I’m using my languages to enrich mine – and others’.  What do I do with my languages?  I do what I did tonight.  I make friends, I explore the world, I learn from others, I change minds.

Want to wring your hands about what I should do?  I’ll be too busy to notice.  I’ll be hanging out in downtown Yafo, as the lights go dim, eating malabi, and laughing with friends as the Arabic blends into Hebrew back into Arabic.  And the sun rises on another life-changing day in the land I call home.

Author: Matt Adler - מטע אדלר

A compassionate multilingual Jewish explorer. Author of "More Than Just Hummus: A Gay Jew Discovers Israel in Arabic": http://tiny.cc/qjfbsz & http://tiny.cc/gkfbsz. Join me on my journeys by reading my blog or following me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/matt.adler.357. May you find some beauty in your day today. :)

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