After an absence of nearly a decade, and although I’ve already been in this land for a month, the truth is that this country takes some getting used to – again. Because there’s so much about the place and the people that I’ve simply forgotten…
I forgot how brash and rude the locals can be, how in-your-face, direct and brutally honest they will dare to be. I forgot how easily they bulldoze themselves into other peoples’ business; like the time that a conversation between two women on a bus (one annoyed by the other’s hot cup of coffee being held above her head) suddenly attracted the attention of passengers nearby, with each one voicing their opinion; after which the exchange between the pair devolved into an irksome foursome. You wouldn’t have needed to understand the language in order to appreciate the hostility.
I forgot how uncaring some can be about their environment, leaving trash behind after a day at the beach, disposing of cigarette butts and other flotsam wherever they may be. I forgot how bad the honking, yelling, road raging can get; how dangerous the driving can be (check the statistics, deaths from traffic accidents are the real national tragedy).
I forgot how people can jump the queue when you’ve been waiting for an hour or more, elbowing into the line ahead of you, then raising hell when you speak up. And I forgot how bank clerks will think nothing of talking with their colleagues, checking their iPhones or taking a call while they proceed to blatantly ignore you.
But every coin has two sides, no less in this country than elsewhere – though if I had my druthers, I’d say this country’s coin has 10 sides, not 2.
In anticipation of my arrival, I remembered all the beauty, the sites, the beach, the architecture, the desert and expansive nature. I remembered and longed to hear again the language and music that I love; to taste the ice cream and Middle Eastern food that made me nostalgic to a fault; to smell the frangipani, almond blossoms and pine cones.
I remembered my great-aunts’ homes, the parks, the little shop on the corner, and even the men in pick-up trucks, who still today, roam around neighborhoods, calling out to residents on their antiquated bullhorns, asking them to bring out ‘old and unused stuff.’ Alte zakhen, alte zakhen…
But I forgot the love the people have for their country, inextricable from their very being. And I forgot how the potential for war underscores the immediacy of the present.
I forgot how the sunset can bring throngs of people to the shores of the sea, one evening after another. I forgot how disaster, tragedy, sadness, commemoration and celebration can bring these people together like nowhere else I’ve been. I forgot how, for good and bad, there’s a kind of crazy glue that binds these people to each other and to the land. Come what may.
I forgot how young people will, without so much as being asked, rise instantly from their seat on a bus when an elderly person boards; how people will help each other up when another falls, how they will give directions easily, point you in the right direction, maybe even go so far as to accompany you to your destination. I forgot how easily they will easily start up or engage in conversation, or respond when you do the same, rarely taking offense and turning the other way.
But many of these and other acts of familiarity, trust and compassion have been driven home to me many times over the past month. Like the day that Moshe, a rail-thin old man, caretaker to the same miniscule kiosk for many decades, patiently explained the many options I could choose from when I wanted to buy a SIM card; he then offered me a freshly-made sandwich that he’d prepared himself. At a discount.
Or this morning, when what could have been a four-hour wait at a government office packed to the rafters with frustrated foreigners, instead flipped over into a blissfully shorter time when a younger woman, who was suddenly guided to another office, gave me her place in line. I could barely contain myself when I went over to thank her when I’d taken care of business and could be on my way.
Or even last evening, when a friend and I were at the beach for a run (him) and walk (me) and stayed on for a drink. We went to pay, were shocked at the bill, realized we were short of money – and the rest unfolded in the most surprising and uncontentious way: The barman offered to pay the remainder out of his tip. Oh, yes he did. We refused, promising to return shortly with money (from the car). He agreed to wait, and though we might not have, indeed we returned as promised. Then, while waiting to settle the bill, the barman offered us a drink – on the house. It all went smoothly and we marveled at the ease and lightheartedness of it all.
For better or worse, it’s a land full of contradictions, a people that mirrors the joys and tensions of marriages or families; they have better days and worse days, there are disagreements, conflicts, blowups and meltdowns. There’s corruption and traffic and drugs and threats of terrorism hang in the air. But dig down deep, below the pretentiousness and callousness, the rough seas and sand… and you might find an odd sense of harmony combined with an unmistakable unity of spirit that weaves itself through this country’s frenzied rhythm and tortured soul, despite it all.