Ok so I’m going to make you wait a bit to get to the title story, but we’ll get there soon 🙂 First, I want to tell you about Tarshiha.
I decided to wander around the Arab village of Tarshiha alone. Having talked to several Jewish Sabras here afterwards, they were a bit surprised- and none of them had done it themselves. This seemed bizarre to me- Tarshiha, half of the mixed Jewish-Arab municipality of Ma’alot Tarshiha, felt much, much safer than at least half of my hometown of D.C. And it’s historic and beautiful:
As I like to do, I wandered around with pretty much no agenda other than exploring and meeting cool people. And speaking a ton of Arabic 🙂 As my new favorite self-made motto goes: “if you’re cool, I’m down”.
Among a bunch of historic homes I noticed a door that said “photography studio”. I talked to the man inside, a 30 year old man named Eli (short for Elias). He is indeed a photographer and he invited me into his studio and immediately made me Arab coffee (think shot-sized coffee and much, much stronger). Because that’s how things work here.
Since I happen to do social media public relations for a living, he asked me some questions about Facebook. I sat down with him for about an hour and showed him tricks of the trade, because why the hell not? He’s a good guy. Plus his Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic, for writing) was a little rusty, so I helped him add a section on his page in Arabic. Otherwise, he had written his page information, geared towards Arab clientele (weddings, etc.)- in Hebrew! Somebody go write a PhD thesis about the American Jewish oleh helping an Arab-Israeli write in Arabic because he was publicizing his events to Arabs…in Hebrew. Unpack that for a lifetime! So much meaning here 🙂
As we sat and sipped our drinks, car after car of his relatives pulls by the door and everyone greets each other. A cousin is a famous journalist, an uncle is a (Arab Greek Orthodox Christian) Mizrachi singer who performs for the Iraqi and Kurdish Jews in the neighboring villages (again- PhD thesis material). I could go on and on, but this town is like a non-stop family reunion. I feel like it’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding but an entire village. And I love it.
Before making my way to another part of town, we exchange contact info. He shows me his newly renovated church around the corner with great pride (even though he identifies as “Secular Orthodox”- a hilarious phrase in a Jewish context). Then he did something extraordinary. This man knows I’m an oleh chadash and that I know very few people in Israel. He points his hand towards the door of the studio and says in Hebrew: “Tireh, bo matay sheba lecha. Zeh habayit shelcha.” Come whenever you want. This is your home. I came to Israel looking for family, I just didn’t expect it would be a Secular Greek Orthodox Arab man! But why the hell not? I can’t think of a more generous way to welcome me to Israel than what he said. And you better believe I’ll be back- especially for the weddings he photographs!
I continued to wander about the village. Most people were welcoming- a few stared. I don’t think many Jews wander the residential neighborhoods of Tarshiha, so I might have looked like a bit of an oddity. But frankly, I’m proud of myself for trying something new and I met a lot of kind and welcoming people there. I find it absolutely embarrassing that not a small number of my fellow Jewish Israelis know more about South America, Germany, or India than about their own neighbors. It’s not only problematic for the future of this country, it’s also a great loss for the people who don’t visit. I literally stumbled upon an Ottoman mosque and administrative headquarters just when looking for a bathroom. It’s true that it can be scary or disorienting to get lost in an unfamiliar town, but if you can handle trekking in the Himalayas, you probably have the instincts to manage Tarshiha.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a door and house covered in flowers. It was gorgeous. Clearly someone had put great effort into making it pretty. There was a picture of a woman who had made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and then just tons of funky modern artwork and colors. As I stood staring, I heard a voice from inside: “tfaddal” – come on in!
Meet Yasmin. Yasmin is a spunky, artistic Bedouin woman who lives in the village. As she’s literally doing her laundry in front of me, she brings me water and candies and invites me to sit. We chat and chat. She works at a factory with Jews and she frankly liked to speak Hebrew with me while I spoke Arabic with her. To her, the North is a great place because “Jews and Arabs are brothers”. She feels they work well together and have good relationships. Like most Israelis of all stripes, she is very very fond of her hometown. She has relatives in nearby Arab villages, but she doesn’t even like to visit there because home is where it’s at. We talk about her mom who made the Hajj pilgrimage. Yasmin was very proud, but Yasmin herself doesn’t want to do it. She believes in God but not all the rituals and prayers- like not a small number of Jews.
Making my way down the hill to eat sushi with my kibbutznik friends who were hosting me (because yes, the Arab village has sushi), I couldn’t help but think how hospitable a country this is. Both Jews and Arabs go out of their way to make you feel at home- with absolutely no expectation of something in return other than kindness and gratitude. Very, very few Americans would invite a stranger into their home like Yasmin or Eli did- even generous Americans. There is just a much greater sense of trust here and it’s frankly refreshing. It even inspires me to be a more generous person.
Across the street from the sushi place, I saw a guy selling nargeelah (hookah). I popped into his store and good lord if this is not one of the hottest people I’ve ever met, then slap me silly and call me a potato. His muscles were bulging. His face was gorgeous. And he has the friendliest smile to match. “I’ll have what he’s having.”
Murad is a 20-something Arab Greek Catholic man from a small village up north. He works in Tarshiha selling supplies for nargeelah at his own shop. As is the custom here, we talked all about life- where we’re from, our background, our hopes and dreams. Because in Israel, you don’t wait until five coffee dates to get to know each other. He told me about his girlfriend- he said he feels no pressure from his family to get married or have children. That they’re having a good time. And then it was my turn and I did something pretty brave and I came out to him. In Arabic. Alone. And…it was absolutely fine. I don’t want to minimize the challenges of homophobia in any community, but since I got a positive vibe from him, I had a good feeling about it. He was very curious- he asked me how I knew, etc. etc.- the same kinds of questions I get even from liberal Americans.
When I explained that when people are attracted to the same sex, it’s totally natural and that you even find it in other species, he looked fascinated and frankly, just accepted it. No pushback, no antagonism, just kind of a “hmm never thought about it that way” look.
We exchanged contact info, gave a nice bro hug, and sent each other some pretty big smiles.
Until I did sushi that night, I had spent my entire day in Arabic other than a few Hebrew words sprinkled in. For all intents and purposes, I spent my day in the Arab world. And guess what? It was pretty cool. I met a Secular Greek Orthodox man, a Sunni Muslim Bedouin woman, and a (super hot) Arab Greek Catholic guy with eye-popping muscles. I saw funky murals and artwork alongside ancient architecture. I even got delicious herbal melon tea at a cute cafe.
This is Arab Israel. 20% of the country. If you haven’t visited an Arab village- do so. You don’t really know Israel if you haven’t. And if the extent of your visit is eating schwarma and going home- then you visited a restaurant, not a culture. Get off your tuchus, as we say in Yiddish, and try something new. Friends, food, and fun await you. Tfaddal- come on in 🙂