Mannequins

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On a whim, I’m in Hamburg. Doesn’t matter how or why. Again, someplace new, walking slowly, noticing, expecting nothing, appreciating everything. I can say, for instance, this river is beautiful – and it’s true: it’s the most beautiful I’ve ever seen it. Hamburg. I have no associations with this place, no expectations, no tribal memories, no cultural references – at least none that come to mind. I took a ride with a mitfahrgelegenheit driver, he dropped me off somewhere, and that’s it.

But how foreign can a European city be? I went to the nearest train station, bought a day travelcard, looked at a map hanging on the wall, picked a neighbourhood near the port, and rode there. Here I am then, wherever this is. Little café by the river, beer and a sandwich, looking out at the grey skies. All unhappy families are the same, all unhappy cities are the same too. Empty office buildings, clean paved streets with glass store-fronts, bored mannequins staring dreamily into open space, waiting for Sunday to be over and to be ogled by mercantile crowds, street signs, rusty-green statues of forgotten kings doomed to eternal apathy, bridges over dirty water, children being dragged from here to there by worried parents out of fresh ideas for filling up Sundays, cars stopping at red lights and stop signs, going when they’re told they can, other cars parked dreamily on both sides of the street, too lethargic to move yet. Cockroaches! The cars are like so many thousands of coloured cockroaches scuttling about the streets of the city everywhichway, eventually slowing to a halt and bursting in a putrid explosion, sending maggots to crawl out and find other host bodies to travel on.

Beards. Glasses. Smartphones. Coats. Rucksacks. If the driver today had dropped me off at any other town in northern Europe, out of communication problems of just old-fashioned malice – I doubt I would have noticed. Were I to close my eyes and not notice a whirlwind lifting this café up in the air and dropping it down in Rostock or Bremen or even Poland, I wouldn’t notice anything amiss – the same coloured cockroaches would scuttle down the same asphalt roads, the same mannequins would stand in the shop windows , gazing out with blank faces, no eyes, silently whispering: be like me. Be like me, mumbles the filthy beggar on the stairs of the train station. The pretty waitress hands me the bill with a handwritten note: Be like me. A seagull flies over the sailors and the prostitutes at the port and shrieks three times: Be. Like. Me.

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Bremen?

Street signs point and tell you where you’re not. 250 metres to here and 400 metres to there. Cigarette machines covered in cryptic kabbalistic graffiti. Tourists stand in groups of three and four, arguing over the orthodox reading of their city maps. Domes and spires desperately crave attention, but the residents of the city haven’t looked up in years, and the tourists are busy reading maps, guidebooks, or iPhones. Here’s a nice app: a couple on their honeymoon walk along the pier, and she stands in the wind while he walks back a few steps to take her picture. He looks at her on the screen, composing the frame, ready to send his and her facebookfriends proof of their happiness and existence, and he taps the screen. She disappears. He looks at the screen again, and all that’s there is the wooden pier, the string barrier, the grey sea blending into the grey sky. He slowly lowers the phone and looks: she’s really gone. Maybe she fell? Jumped? He walks over to the sea, careful not to get too near the edge, but he can’t see any trace of her. Small waves crash on the pier, it’s cold and windy, seagulls caw. He looks around, some other tourists are walking alone or in pairs, no sign of her. Should he call for help? Call the police? What would he say? Sheepishly, he looks at his phone again, flicking through the pictures (there she is, in front of the church, eating breakfast at the hotel, on the train, and the empty picture of the grey-blue sea). He swipes the screen, looking through the different settings and options, but feels silly. He notices that he’s not sad, nor scared. He takes a last look at the sea, and then walks back to town, absentmindedly twisting his wedding-ring off his finger and throwing it into a paper-recycling bin at the corner of the next street.

Have you ever seen a finished city? Cities build themselves, tear themselves down, rebuild, refurbish, ugly becomes slum becomes chic becomes posh becomes ugly. The most ubiquitous feature of any city skyline is cranes. Proud and erect, towers of Babel, they point up to the sky as if to say: just wait! The city’s not finished yet! It may be ugly now, cold and sad, but just wait! At the foot of the one of the cranes, on the street corner, a hopeful young girl, pierced lips, torn black t-shirt and green hair, sits and sings “Be like me”. A huge poster covers the building above her, a babyfaced model with superwhite teeth smiles innocently, dark blue letters spell out Be Like Me. A taxi-driver slows down nearby, leans over to look at the late-night crowd at the bus stop, whispering Be Like Me. A blind man walks with his guide-dog, nobody cares for either of them except for the other, and yet he is not unhappy when the dog barks Be Like Me, and he strokes it behind the ears and whispers the same words back. Be like me, be like me, the words gurgle in the drainpipes and drift in the evening breeze. Even the faithful in the synagogues and churches dare say these words to their Lord.

Völkerwanderung

[notes from Uzbekistan]

1. The One Who Stayed Behind

Old Elias, the last kosher butcher in Buchara, looked the goat over, mumbled the blessing, raised his knife and slit its throat. He would sell the meat to his son-in-law Abdullah, or to his neighbours, Rahamim and Esther, or to the old woman who cleaned the two synagogues every now and then. He knew that they were only buying kosher meat to support him, but he didn’t let that upset him. All his old friends had died long ago, his children and disciples had emigrated to New York and Jerusalem. There were only a handful of people in the town who could still speak the old language, Judeo-Tajik, or write its blocky letters.

“Don’t worry,” he said to the old cow sitting beside him, eyeing him mournfully. He pulled an apple out of his pocket, and fed it to her lovingly. “That’s how it goes around here.” He lay the goat and his knife down on the ground, and put his hand on the cow’s dirty head. “You’ve still got me, you know.”

2. The Ones Who Returned

Why am I always drawn to these places? The sun’s just set in Samarkand, it’s getting chilly, and I quickly walk down the generic promenade by the Registan, turn down alleyways almost at random, until I find the most grimy bar in town. Drunkards, shouting, laughing, fights; men I instinctively stereotype as taxi drivers sit around a table smoking and shouting; a huge waiter (or bouncer, I can’t exactly tell), built like a tank, guides me to a sticky table in the corner and gets me a beer. On the way I’m accosted by a drunk man wearing a grey skullcap – he squeezes my hand hard and seems to ask where I’m from. “Israel,” I say. “England,” he repeats. And so it is.

Faded posters in Cyrillic advertise Pepsi, and a grotesque plastic moose head hangs on the wall, with a neon sign: BUD. The man with the skullcap tries to stand and can’t, and the waiter throws him out.

I may well be the only bearded man in this city, a feature more distinctive and more divisive than religion. The barman looks sad. He fills an empty coke bottle with beer and hands it to one of the men. Skullcap staggers back in, looks at me, and lurches away. Why am I always drawn to these places?

But this is why – look! a man with a tired face and black-and-gold teeth looks at me and says: Israel? Yes. He sits down at my table, and tells me place names in Hebrew. Yisrael – Kiryat Shalom – Tachana Merkazit, before adding his old job, metapelet, caregiver. We talked for a few minutes with no clear shared language, scatterings of Russian and Hebrew and English. He actually was a taxi driver! And then, another man on crutches tap-tapped over to us. Israel? Yes! Kiryat Gat – Petach Tikva – Beit Avot [old-age home] – no visa! We tried to engage in deeper conversation, but our common words soon ran out, and the enormous waiter was having none of it either. He barked a few words, and the two crippled Zionists hobbled out. Shalom, shalom!

3. The Tourist

Flash click clack snick flash clash get that angle get that shot aim for the heart shoot ‘em down shoot ‘em up up up hey you there smile smile look up hey look look look at his hat isn’t that lovely oh gosh this is so this is so hey look at her teeth my god did you see that did you get that get it dennis get it now i want to show sharon her son is a dentist oh look what you’ve done she’s looking away now hey you look here smile oh fuck it let’s get out of here i’m bored.

Foto 2

4. The Soldier (1)

The Mongol invasions were one of the bloodiest episodes in the bloody history of human warfare. The empire expanded rapidly, and just as quickly faded away: a drop of blood in a clear lake. Their mark on history, however is minimal – they destroyed almost everything and built almost nothing.

A century earlier, the Arabs conquered the same patch of land in Central Asia, and alongside the death and destruction that tend to accompany any conquest, they brought the land a gift which lasted well over a millennium without fading – Islam. There must be a lesson here somewhere – a civilisation that arrives with a Big Idea changes the world, one that comes with nothing but raw power remains a passing phenomenon.

Or maybe not. Maybe my perspective is wrong, maybe a millennium is a passing phenomenon too on the scale we should be using. Islam in Central Asia replaced centuries of Zoroastrian fire-worship, and it’s possible that the latest Big Idea to hit the region, Communism, will succeed in wiping out Islam as a significant political force – it basically has already, along with neutralising the unique indigenous Jewish traditions. Ideas die too. Maybe Genghis Khan, for all his wanton destruction, plundering and pillaging, lived out something sorely sought after today – detachment from the shackles of the past and of the future, immersion in the Now, mindful awareness, lack of judgement. Perhaps the Mongol Khans, admittedly with a heavy sprinkle of compassion, could serve as role-models for us today?

5. The Dervish

Agha-Jaan breathed out, slowly, let his lungs deflate completely, let all the air out, and when there was nothing left to breathe out, breathed out some more. His eyes were half-open. He remained still for a few moments, and then breathed in sharply, hungrily, letting the air rush in and make him dizzy. He swayed gently, back and forth, and then repeated the exercise, slowly emptying himself and coming back to life. The sky was already light, and the tip of the sun was showing itself over the far-off purple hills. With each breath of his, it rose a little higher.

He breathed out again, mentally picturing the letters het, taf, kaf, black fire dancing on white fire. His brother had taught him these methods, and the other dervishes they had met on their journeys had nodded their approval when he described it to them, sitting around campfires on their way to the next khanqah. They understood: the ninety-nine names of Allah, and the seventy-two names of the God of the Jews were only a fraction of the infinite names of aspects of the infinite divinity infused in the world around them.

Agha breathed in again, feeling the cold air brush against the tip of his nostrils, flow above his palate and down into his chest, then out, past his lips, more and more, while his lungs and ribs contracted and his throat grew dry. His mind’s eye was focused on three flickering letters: peh, alef, yud. The sun rose yet higher, the hills turned brown.

His hatchet and begging bowl were by his side, each ready to greet the various people who might pass down this desert road. His brother, Hoji Yusuf, was behind him, and had already finished his morning devotions. He held his axe in his hands. If bandits came, they would kill them or be killed. No matter. The journey of the soul was just as sweet when it left the body. Agha breathed out again, and closed his eyes, letting the black-and-white fires spread through his body. The sun hesitated, braced itself, and rose high up into the light-blue sky.

jewish-dervishes

[Jewish dervishes Agha-Jaan Darvish and his brother, patriarchs of the Darvish family. Tehran, Iran, c.1922]

6. The Soldier (2)

“The worst thing that ever happened to us was independence,” Rahmon said to me in broken German. He had served for years guarding East Germany, and even fifty years later, he recalls his service as the better years of his life. “Soviet times were good. Now it is bad. Russia was big. Now we are small.” His family live in what has become Tajikistan, and post-Soviet borders are irksome. The old men here scowl at independence. It came just at the wrong time for them, just when they would have begun to reap the benefits after having given so much over the years to the Soviet state.

Now he chops wood for a small paper-mill outside Samarkand, taking frequent breaks to drink and smoke and scowl. “How much do you earn? Do you have a wife? A car?” His questions are a refreshing burst of honesty after days of back-and-forth orientalist projections between everyone here: locals behaving the way they think tourists expect them to behave. Rahmon sits on a stool with his machete by his side, scowling at me and at the universe. “Russia was good. I want to move somewhere else now, but I’m too old.”

7. The Migration of Peoples

A spinning magnet can create electricity; an electric current flowing around metal can induce magnetism. What matters is movement. I sit here in the airport in Urgench, watching the people running every which way, pondering the energy induced in people by movement. The messianic ideal of sitting peacefully under one’s vine will always remain a myth. What makes people people comes from their movement from one place to another, from the clashes and hardships and change inherent in such a move. Ideas grow when they move from mind to mind. All stories are about journeys. And I’m sitting in the airport departure hall, scribbling stories I’ve collected here in Uzbekistan, but I’m writing about myself, of course.

8. The Wonderer

“Oh – the world thinks in such tired, worn, traditional clichés. It never asks the wanderer where he’s going, only ever where he’s come from. And what matters to the wanderer is his destination, not his point of departure.”   —  Joseph Roth, “The Wandering Jews”, 1937

Scabs

This city of bloodshed has become a scab, a clean, strong, and hard scab, one can live here quite comfortably and I do. But the old wives tell too-curious children: don’t pick, don’t pick at it! And when they do, blood wells out, gathers, forms a drop, and splashes down on the clean white floor.

(I hesitate, now, to continue writing this. In Gaza and Jerusalem, dark-red stormclouds fill the sky and the blood gushes in rivers. Shouldn’t I be writing about that? Shouldn’t I be there? Why dig up the past, here in Berlin? Don’t pick, don’t pick. But I do.)

Stolpersteine

Berlin. City of scabs. Small golden scabs, tall white slabs of scabs, hearts of stone. Hegel was right: history here has ended. All that’s left are echoes, rubble, scabs; everything is arranged neatly in memorials, museums and helpful plaques. History is happening elsewhere, one reads about it, one shakes one’s head at the awful events in the Ukraine, in Iraq, in Gaza, far away from here.

And yet a primordial instinct takes hold of me, and I search, I read, I ask questions, I dig down, I pick. I want to see, to know; who lived here before it was all good again, what happened to them, how similar were they to me. (That’s what it’s all about, no? All the obsession of third-generation Germans and Jews, with the holocaust: it all boils down to one question: what would I have done?) The blood wells up almost immediately, a small drop here, another there, and then I find this map:

Screenshot 2014-10-26

In the big picture of things, this is small, this is nothing. It’s just a thousand-or-so of the Jewish victims of one Berlin neighbourhood (the one I now call home): compared to the number of those killed in the rest of the city, in the rest of the country, throughout Europe, it’s almost nothing. And yet, walking down exactly those streets on the way to the supermarket, cycling through that park and to the river on the way to work, those red blood-drops on the map are overwhelming. Shall we pick some of those scabs? Dare we?

Some have more complete stories than others. At the bottom of my street is a former prison, where Albrecht Haushofer spent his last days (he was shot in the head outside the prison during the last days of the war). Haushofer had a Jewish grandmother, and under the Nuremberg Laws (since he was neither religious, married to a Jew nor a bastard) he was classified as a second-degree mischling, but a close friendship with Rudolf Hess provided him with a Certificate of German Blood. He taught geopolitics at the Berlin University, and served in some low-level diplomatic activities for the Nazi party, before being arrested for his involvement in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler. During his imprisonment, he composed a collection of sonnets. He was both a proponent and a victim of Nazi ideology, and I’m never sure what to think of him as I walk down the street he was shot on on my way to the train station.

According to the map, the house opposite mine (now the Sultan Ahmet Camii mosque) was the last place of residence of Jachet Mondschein, before being deported in 1942. Low-level google research didn’t come up with anything substantial, so I’m left to imagine what her life looked like. Did she look down from her window at the crowds in the pogrom of 1938? Which of her neighbours were also her friends? Where were they when she was taken away? Who was her husband, who gave her such an odd name, but isn’t listed as a victim at the same address? Did he die earlier? Escape without her? I have as many questions about Erich and Herbert Arndt, who live in the building down the road which is now a shitty-looking youth hostel, filled with school groups, stag-nighters and away-team football fans. Were they father and son? And the mother? Herbert has my birthday, born six decades before me, murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 23.

Screenshot 2014-10-26 (1)

Google Streetview, with inverted drops of blood hardening into scabs outside every house, shop and falafel vendor, approximates how I see the streets I walk and cycle along. Sometimes. If I choose to. Because the simple truth is that the scabs are tucked away and ignored, actively unseen, by me as well as everyone else in this city, and how could it be otherwise? Berliners can drink beer in the park, play saxophones on streetcorners, cook pumpkin soup, get on and off buses that run exactly on time. Nobody can live in a gaping wound, nobody can comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust and continue living their lives. I certainly can’t, although I occasionally try. I don’t blame anyone here for the prevailing attitude of ‘commemorate and ignore’. But maybe, occasionally, things have to be shaken, scabs opened up, victims given names, in order that life be not too comfortable in this city-sized crematorium.

Things of Berlin

The Museum of Things, tucked away in a back alley in Kreuzberg. Its name is its essence, the long glass cabinets contain Things, nothing more; its significance is enormous, though, for we are things surrounded by things. And inasmuch as the entire world is a ‘museum of things’ as well, the challenge lies in categorizing, grouping things on the shelves, sometimes with a little label on the side of the cabinet, sometimes without, leaving visitors to decide on their own titles: black-and-yellow things, things shaped like feet, things with flags, sleek metal things, things for drinking, things with wheels, religious marble things, plastic things from East Germany, plastic things from West Germany. And there was nothing really that I hadn’t seen before, but somehow the groupings seemed novel, and for days afterwards raised questions: what does a souvenir look like? how is a wooden toy different to a plastic or metal one? what’s my favourite type of spoon? what do plastic flowers make me feel?

Things. That’s all we have, really: things and their names. Consider my day as a collection of things I pass by, touch, let go of. Alarm clock, toilet, tap, towel. Bread, butter, honey, knife, plate, sink, soap, tap, towel. Clothes, shoes, coat, keys. An expired bus-ticket, waved quickly in front of the driver, hoping she won’t notice. Trains screeching to a halt at each station, exhaling one noxious crowd and inhaling another. Toys, coloured pencils, recycled paper, small tables, bibs, boots, mud, coats, worms, sand, food, dishtowel, broom, books, blankets, nappies, wet-wipes, soap, tears. Bus, train, bus. Bed. Alarm clock. Food, oil, fire, knife, fork, salt, plate, sink, soap, water. Beer. Smoke. Bicycle. Bed.

It would be a big shelf, but it’s somehow not hard to imagine: a long wood-and-glass cabinet in the corner of the museum, with a small white sticker: Josh’s Tuesday. And the next one, and the next; a whole museum, huge, but not infinitely so, collections of things. How drearily similar each cabinet is to the next, one could cry with boredom.

cabinets Museum of Things

And I’ve tried to innovate, to destroy cabinets of old things, to uproot and move from Jerusalem to Vienna, to Jaffa, to Berlin – and within minutes, routine kicks in, things surround me and block my path, and the row of monotonous museum cabinets stretches out ahead of me again.

Autumn things in Berlin: Wooden brooms sweep green-red leaves. Umbrellas by the door. Weather forecasts on smartphones. Two blankets. Street shoes and house shoes. Jazz bands in smoky underground bars. Trees next to bus stops, where less rain falls. New friends. Beer. Two-euro coins. Bed.

Such Sweet Sunshine

A sudden summer descends on Berlin.

Berlin’s history is made up of post-war, pre-war, at-war, inter-war and anti-war years. But only in the winter. The sudden sunlight dissolves history and future, and the city glows with the carelessness of Now. Yes, war and hate and rain are forgotten in moments, half-clothed kids sit with beggars, tourists and refugees, leaning back on meaningless memorials and sharing rolled cigarettes. A few forgotten coins are suddenly discovered in the pockets of last year’s shorts, and that’s enough for beer and falafel, traditional offerings of thanks to the summer gods. The sunlight whispers sweet love to the dirty bridges, the scarred towers, the hopeless birds, the bored policemen and prostitutes, the forgotten rusty bicycles. Muddled teenagers in their early thirties walk towards the Spree river, and forget half-way why they’re walking, and where to, and sit on an inviting patch of grass under silent trees, trying to remember who they are. If it weren’t for the plaques and signs and memorial monuments scattered around the city, whole neighborhoods would forget their names, and bathe in the warm sun in blissful amnesia.

Fertilised by sun and lust, old tattoos swell up and spread out over the arms and necks and backs and legs of aging punks, flourishing, blooming, spreading even from one person to the next, spreading onto the walls, wild graffiti crawling up the crumbled brick buildings; the city positively hums with vitality and potential, a squat within its abandoned self, revelling in the simple joys of sunshine, of freedom, of Now.

 

berlinsun

 

A sudden summer, and with barely-concealed yelps of joy sharply-dressed businessmen let their raincoats and overcoats and woolen hats drop to the floor, and skin, finally bare skin is revealed; the men wear vests, torn t-shirts or nothing at all, their white skin blushing pink with excitement and half-memories of Spanish holidays, the otherwise unwelcome dark-skinned Turks and Arabs are suddenly objects of envy for the flabby pink purebloods, who nonetheless storm out in their thousands, their millions, like pudgy locusts they invade every garden, park, riverbank, roundabout, street-corner; orgiastic crowds of white flesh and bored girlfriends sweltering in their newfound divinity. They soak up the sunbeams thirstily, for all the world as if they were driven by pure photosynthesis, able to produce sweet energy from nothing more than beer and sunlight.

The sudden ecstasy douses all common sense: old scarves and knitted jumpers are thrown in rubbish heaps; already, the memories of cold night and cold feet have evaporated. No, no, it’s summer now, the shiny post-war buildings reflect the good news from one to the other, almost singing as the sunbeams bounce between them and dazzle the birds and tourists below. It’s summer, finally, we made it. Pride mixes with joy mixes with pure bliss, and the whole city, pink and white, looks up at the bright sky and screams with delight.

Banality of Upheaval

I walk through the desert and soak it all in. The sun, obviously: I’m shivering slightly from swimming through flash-flood pools that collected after last week’s rain in Jerusalem, we swim across the gevim and try to warm up when sunbeams make it into the narrow valley. And the desert itself, the experience itself, I try to soak it all in, I try to soak in the experience of soaking in experience – I don’t know when the next time I’ll see a desert will be – the thought isn’t dramatic but it tinges everything with a sense of urgency: I stop thinking about what will be: I have to be wholly here, not think too much, walk through the desert, clamber down cliffs, dive in the pools, dry off in the sun, not reflect at all now, let experience become a memory later, by itself. There are no deserts in Berlin.
 
Yes, Berlin, Berlin, next stop on my nonsensical life journey. On a whim, almost, I started saying to people: ‘maybe I’ll move to Berlin’, and it felt completely right to say so, so I bought a ticket and started packing up my life here. And yes, everyone’s doing it, and yes, Berlin’s so over, and yes, there’s nothing there that I can’t find here, and yes, hipsters, and yes, the Holocaust, and yes, I’m running away from problems instead of dealing with them. Yes. 
 
Some encounters from the last few days:
 
As part of my Zen regime of getting rid of connection to Things, I called my landlord, Arik, to tell him I’m leaving midway through our contract, and to ask him not to pay the fine. No problem, he said, find someone to take the flat, the rent is going up by 200 shekels, you’ll find someone, just no Arabs, that’s all. I mumbled something that sounded like agreement, not looking for an argument, and set about flogging off the flat so I could get on to searching for a flat of my own in Berlin. I emailed friends and posted the flat on Facebook (my new toy), and a couple people started showing interest and coming to take a look at the place. When Helal wrote to me asking to come and see, I didn’t think anything of it, just gave my number and told him to come over and see the flat. Only a few minutes before he arrived, my creaking brain connected the dots and I realised what was about to happen: an Arab was going to come and see a no-Arab flat. There was no way for me to stay neutral, anything I said to avoid conflict would make me complicit in Arik’s menial, everyday racism. When he came in, I just blurted out the truth: listen, the landlord doesn’t want to rent to Arabs. He was taken aback, but said that it’s ok, it happens, and left. I felt shit, telling the truth was probably the stupidest idea, I didn’t feel any less complicit by having implicated Arik. A few minutes later, Helal texted and asked for the landlord’s number. I gave it to him, let Arik sort out his own mess. Later that night, I got a frantic call from Arik: you idiot, why did you give that Arab my number, you don’t know what he’s doing to me. Turns out Helal was texting him exactly what he thought of his decision, and had written a Facebook post asking others to write to him too. 
 
(This is becoming a longer story than I intended, but it’s important to tell.)
 
During the next days I got lots of calls from furious Arik, begging-demanding me not to give anyone his address, and finally, a call from a different number: see what you’ve done, I’ve had to change my number, don’t find anyone to take the flat, don’t do anything, just leave the flat and leave me alone. Perfect. I feel bad for Helal, but glad that Arik suffered for the kind of racism that pains me the most here: small, banal words or actions made by people completely unaware that they’re doing any wrong. Arik didn’t think for a second that I disagreed with him, that he had said anything wrong. He probably still doesn’t, nothing’s changed except that he hates me. But the little things (yesterday on a bus, a woman looked out the window and said out loud: “All these Africans.” – that’s it, she left the bored audience on the bus to complete the sentence) – (a woman sitting alone at a restaurant in Jaffa sees a disabled boy selling roses, and calls the waitress to ask if he’s Jewish or Arab) – (all of these) – they grate on my soul so much that I’ll be glad to be somewhere else for a while. Not that I fight against them, I don’t speak up, I don’t shout, I just get sad and run away.
 
One more story for tonight, a prophecy, maybe. 
 
I stayed with Mendel in Jerusalem, and he asked me to come and pray with his rabbi, a mystical recluse who lives in an musty cavern in the Old City, praying and meditating. We came at six in the morning on Shabbat (already a miracle), and stood around waiting for the rabbi to finish his morning meditations and accept us. An hour later, we walked in, and prayed silently while he croaked prayers, often repeating a verse two or three times until his silent kavanot were in tune with the words he was saying. We were all behind him, people in his line of sight disturb him, Mendel said, because he sees everything through combinations of the four letters of the divine Name. Maybe. At one point, reading the Torah, he started crying, an old man, torn and dusty clothes, his body shaking as he wept. He motioned for us to leave, and we went outside to the Western Wall plaza. As we were standing there and discussing what had just happened, a man came up to us, obviously distraught, and asked us to do a hatavat chalom, an old ceremony for annulling a bad dream and taking away its evil power. It fit in perfectly with the weirdness of the morning, so we did it, standing in front of him, chanting verses in Aramaic, repeating words three times and seven times, declaring the evil dream to be over. When we were done, he was visibly relieved. 
 
“Thank you, thank you,” he kept repeating, “I had such a bad dream.”
 
What was it?
 
“I dreamed I was leaving Israel and flying to another country!”

In Defence of Tourism

19 February 2014
 
I now believe that there is no virtue in authenticity, in the authentic experience. First, because it’s unattainable, and the very attempt at mimicry is grotesque; second, because, as an aim, it is empty of meaning. So you’re in an Ethiopian restaurant, dressed like a real Ethiopian, eating real Ethiopian food – this is the real, authentic Ethiopian experience (it’s not, but even if it was) – so what? Authenticity can only be in relation to oneself. Whether travelling or at home, you have to be self-centred, a bit, and in touch with you subjective experience. If you like injira, eat it. If you like pizza, eat it. If you do something that you don’t like, you’re a fool.
 
Hence the Midas-like paradox of tourism. The searching for authentic experiences, already inherently futile and meaningless, are made even more so by modern-day tourism. What authentic experience involves cameras, postcards and souvenirs? (In the words of David Foster Wallace: “As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”) Consider: gaggles of Japanese tourists with their noses glued to their iPad screens in an African village, photographing ragged children posing the way they know tourists like them to pose, or middle-aged American women sporting saris and eating chapatis with their new-found Indian friend – what are they if not absolutely, fundamentally silly? Of course, tourists can also be rude, obnoxious, threatening or damaging, but even at their best, at their most passive, just sitting and eating their chapatis, they are ridiculously silly.
 
 
But if so, let it be so. This is not a call to stop travelling, to stop being silly, to stay in our living rooms and remain dignified. We should embrace our silliness, travel the world as self-aware, silly tourists. Instead of going off on futile quests for authenticity, hating ourselves when our attempts inevitably fail, and covering up our disappointment in restlessness, frantically seeking out increasingly wild and remote attempts to experience the authentic – no, let us use the diversity and variety the world gives us and examine its effect on our bodies and souls, let us try everything once, let us experience nothing but our authentic selves, let us learn and develop and enjoy and be. To others, we will be silly – what of it? To ourselves, let us be true.
 
But the real promise in this self-aware silliness of tourism is not in travelling the world, rather, it can shed new light on the most problematic human interactions back home. These are interactions involving differences of power between two groups of people, and the seeming impossibility of honest communication between them. Consider: a Jew walking through an Arab neighbourhood in East Jerusalem tries to strike up conversation with a falafel-vendor; a businesswoman gives a beggar a few coins and asks him how he’s feeling; an employer makes a joke and his employees laugh; a white critic praises (or condemns) a black dancer. In all these cases, the context, the differences of power assigned to the individuals by society or circumstance, is so strong as to overpower the actual communication itself. It seems impossible for communication in these cases to mean anything apart from echoing the power differences. 
 
But if we reframe this search for honest communication as a quest for authentic experience, our earlier discussion on tourism might prove helpful. Because what is the silly tourist if not a destroyer of context? He sees the world he passes through with no awareness of context, he is seen by others as devoid of context: silly as he is, he is harmless, and communication with a tourist, although not authentic, not honest, is at least possible. Tourism is a practical application of what aesthetic theory calls ostranenie, or defamiliarization – a way of seeing the thing-as-it-is by taking it out of context, suddenly seeing it as strange, silly. 
 
So let us be tourist always! Let the Jew speak in English to the falafel-vendor, neither occupier nor victim, but as a curious tourist; the silly businesswoman can sit down next to the beggar and chat, if she wants, she can also walk away if she doesn’t, without feeling guilty; an employer can’t make a joke and insist on authority at the same time, he has to first expose himself to ridicule, act silly, before the employees’ laughs ‘mean’ anything; the white critic should acknowledge his power-difference (to himself, and in writing), and then ignore it, seeing the dance as he would in a foreign country, exciting, fresh, new. He could well do the same with a white dancer, he could do the same always. Let us be tourists forever, then, let us be curious explorers, let us be silly and harmless, let us simply be.

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[ Postscript:

I got lots of really interesting feedback from this one, maybe worth sharing here.

First of all, turns out this touches on lots of things that have been written by lots of other people.Leeron recommended reading Kwame Anthony Appiah‘s ‘Ethics in the World of Strangers’; Eric, self-proclaimed Orientalist, spoke of Sartre’s ‘Nausea’, in particular, when he describes a Morroccan pulling a knife on him as one of the few authentic experiences of his life; Samanthapointed me to this tumblr on white girls who pose with African children, but also spoke of other sides of the tourist experience; Matan mentioned Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation, with his example of a policeman calling out to you on the street, and in the moment you turn to him, you assert his authority over you. Matan said that what I was describing here is a conscious choice not to listen to policemen. 

My whole life is spent trying not to listen to policemen. Matan said, continuing a discussion we’ve been having for the last five years or so, that I choose to be blind, and wondered if that’s a possible choice, while admitting that using tourism as a strategy is a possibility. Moriel, who is a dawn unto his own day, gave some brilliant and beautiful reflections on what I wrote here – ‘experience’ in and of itself is inauthentic; acknowledging power-dynamics without falling into self-flagellating guilt-dynamics; reflections on silliness and awareness. Finally, he finishes off with a challenge. Quote: 

Where enters the benefit of “doing what you don’t like,” or, alternately, being more cautious with one’s touristic awareness? Which is to say: what about the parts of existence that aren’t silly, or might be silly for us, as tourists, but aren’t for the touristed? And isn’t there some benefit, sometimes, to doing what is unpleasant for the sake of… well… something else? 

The challenge stands. A half-answer: all my thoughts above are only one strategy for living in this strange, strange world. It’s a not a way to live an entire life, I don’t subscribe totally to any ideology. Being silly tourists allows you to flow through the world harmlessly and unharmed, and opens doors where reality is often too heavy. But. Tourists can’t be angry, elated, or passionate. If you want to connect to the stronger emotions that drive you, you have to abandon this strategy, stand up to the context of the world and deal with it. Turn to the policeman and stare him down.  ]