Saturday, October 28, 2006

eid mubarak

My friend Mahdi invited me and Hannah to his village, Arabe, to spend Eid al-Fitr with him and his family. I'm used to driving past the Arab villages on my way up north on Highway 6 and through Wadi Ara, but I haven't been further inside than the roadside ceramic shops in at least 10 years, and certainly not since the Intifada began and returned to hiatus. One of the two words I could use best to express my experience is a very common Jewish feeling: guilt. The other is perhaps less particularly Jewish, but another necessary emotion of humanity: humbling.

The guilt is easy to understand. There's not much Jews don't feel guilty about, and in Israel, there's even more of a reason to feel it. Never does one feel the Arabian quality of Israel than in these villages, where nearly all the signs are in Hebrew, but only a handful, mostly students and professionals, speak fluently, and where the traditional Muslim culture flourishes. Hannah and I took a train to Haifa, and then caught a bus into the Arab "triangle" - Arabe, the famous soccer town Sakhnin, and Deir Hana. The bus was practically empty, aside from an old woman who talked to us incessantly about how she couldn't figure out what bus to take to Haifa and how she has to pay 80 shekels a day to take a cab to the city for her medical check-ups. She got off just before the turn into the triangle, and then it was just us and a Muslim woman about our age.

Mahdi and his cousin picked us up at the entrance to the city, and we drove across town to his family's land on the outskirts. We stopped to get beer for his uncles, which surprised us, considering that we were going to a celebration to mark the end of Ramadan. But Mahdi told us that only his mother and a couple sisters fasted this year, and besides, it wasn't so odd for some Muslims to drink beer. We tried to understand this according to the Jewish separation of religious and secular, but Mahdi told us it wasn't like that. They were Muslims, and Muslim is Muslim, whether one fasts or drinks alcohol. He wouldn't be allowed to drink himself until he got married, he told us - tradition is tradition.

He sat us down at a table outside the front door of an absolutely illuminating house set on a cliff above both his uncle's homes. His dad was the oldest brother, and therefore entitled to the best piece of land. Mahdi's four sisters came out, one after the other, bringing us dried fruit, and candies, and nuts and cola. Mahdi spoke to them very authoritatively, in a tone resembling a father's or employer's, which made me feel uncomfortble, not just because of the gender factor, which was obvious, but because of my own inability to say anything to them except shukran, making me feel like an snobby guest, or a mute imbecile.

That feeling grew even stronger when we went down to his uncle's yard to join the meal. The barbecue was still going strong, but the eaters were slowing down. One of his aunts jumped up to stuff Mahdi's hands full of shish kebobs, and mine and Hannah's plates with grilled onions and tomotoes and chips and salads. Again and again. They thought it was funny that we weren't eating meat, and funnier that I don't speak Arabic. My best form of communication was smiling and leaning toward Hannah for the right phrases. One of his aunts and an uncle spoke to us in Hebrew and everyone else chattered to us in Arabic, anyway, looking expectantly at me after each sentence. I just kept smiling and saying shukran.

I actually enjoyed the limited communication, in a certain way, because it gave me a chance to abandon the normal guest routine of answering questions and talking about myself, and experience Mahdi and his family. It would have been nice to understand what they were saying, but just sitting around and feeling warm with a friend's family, in a place I've never been before, was really comfortable and humbling. This was clearly an Arab world, however, and my inability to speak to them only heightened my feeling of being a Jewish immigrant, and of course, the neverending feeling of Jewish guilt.

When we finally got the courage to tell his aunts we were full, Mahdi took us on a stroll through town. The streets were packed with young people, some playing on giant air-filled giraffes and most others walking aimlessly in groups. Mahdi told us he was taking us to the one cafe in town where women were allowed in, but warned us that this might only be the second time a woman had been inside, the other time being Hannah's last visit. He told us women never went out in Arabe, at least not without their male relatives. The waiter did shoot us a questioning glance when we came in, but didn't say anything, except asking what we wanted to drink. Mahdi told us he couldn't drink alcohol at a cafe in his town, but we could if we wanted. I definitely didn't feel like drinking a beer in a place where woman aren't usually allowed.

Since we ate dinner so early, it was only 7 pm when we left the cafe. I was happy to go back to Mahdi's house to relax, but he seemed a little embarassed that there wasn't much of a night life for us to see. We sat on low mattreses and watched TV with his little brother Hamudi and their mother, who the minute we sat down threw her blanket over our legs and brought us tea and fruit and nuts. She did the same thing when Mahdi's and Hannah's friend Farid, came over. The three of them worked together last year in sadaka reut - literally friendship friendship in Arabic and Hebrew - a non-profit organization that educates Arab and Jewish kids on coexistence. They're all really comfortable with each other, and comfortable to be around, but I kept feeling nagged by the fact that we were sitting with two Arabs, in an Arab village, speaking in Hebrew. The guilt stemmed from the knowledge that no matter how far back their families were tied to the land, it was still longer than my immediate family, yet we were speaking my language, in a state that was clearly more concerned with my welfare than with theirs. And at the same time, they were Israeli citizens, but self identify as Palestinian Arabs. They would never want to be transferred to the West Bank or Gaza, as our new minister of strategic threats, Avigdor Lieberman, has suggested, but they don't really want to remain second class citizens here either.

The clear divisions between our worlds made me realize that when Jews in Israel work on coexistence, we are doing it of guilt for what we have done and what we are doing. When Arabs do it they are also doing it out of guilt, in a certain sense, but in a much less direct way. They are doing it more because of the realization that if they don't, they will remain on the fringes of a society that fears them and is at best only tolerating them as citizens. Their guilt is sometimes for what their neighbors have done, or their Palestinian brothers, but on the whole, they are considering the best course of action for the future. Many Jews feel that way too, knowing that it is only moral and secure to be at ease with our non-Jewish neighbors, but I don't think it is possible to extract the factor of guilt from the equation. Especially considering that Israel was designed to be a Jewish state, and plainly speaking, Muslims are not Jewish, no matter how much we work at coexisting.

I felt even more guilty as I sank into one of the three beds in the girls' room, while they slept somewhere else, and when we sat around eating a gloriously huge breakfast together, chewing silently for lack of shared language and of politeness. And as part of that guilt, and in part from humilty, I reminded myself to learn Arabic before I came up again for another visit.

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