All too familiar- The Middle East

There’s barely anything as pleasurable for me as to squat on the ground and let water gently swim down my back as if it was a gentle caress. I still remember how my first bucket shower ( while I volunteered in Thailand ) went from total dislike to becoming my favourite activity of the day. I remember how the hot bucket shower available in the himalaya mountains in Ladakh put a smile from ear to ear on my face. There the bucket was given to me with boiling water  and I decided with the cold water available in the bathroom which temperature I wanted it to  slide down my body. It usually made me remember how little pressure, knobs and water we need to have a wonderful time.And so tonight, the water, I chose to be cold. I let it pour down my exhausted body in this hot sunny day. I had never imagined this morning I would be sleeping where I am now. I have been on and off sick since I arrived in the middle east. I went from being totally cared by my Israeli friend Maya to suddenly be totally cared by my Palestinians friends on this side of the wall. But when I woke up I knew none of it. I just left Maya to go back to the place I am officially staying in Tel Aviv but as I reached the station I decided to take a bus to Jerusalem.

I love Jerusalem, where even the newest tram can create confusion in the minds of those who live in this city known to so many for so many thousands of years. As I stood close to the machine under a boiling sun watching religious of all kinds pass one in front of the other. As I heard them have discussions ( I could not understand) with tourists, and soldiers while being “helped” by some kind of worker (whose job seemed to be to take the money of a few people to buy the tickets for them rendering the automatic , self-service machine useless and taking longer than a counter )I had to laugh….It somehow felt suddenly that I was back in the middle east.

I met a friend in the beautiful mahane yehuda which is one of my favourite markets in the world. As I walked through it I just wanted to stay in Jerusalem forever! I remembered every friend that disliked Jerusalem and I thought they must not know the secret details. I realised within seconds they probably feel the same about me. The truth is that in all its chaos I love Jerusalem for its incoherence.

My friend invited me to stay but somehow I knew where I was going. I promised to come back but since my feet knew where to walk to I took the path. I was coming to Nablus in the West Bank. I knew where to find the bus, I knew how to go from Ramallah to Nablus without having to figure out where the bus station was. I walked the whole time remembering how all too strange and difficult it had felt the first time I came. I knew no one, i knew not my path, my Israeli friends were terrified I was coming here alone. But I just came. I confess, that as I walked I felt some slight pride for that stranger so much stronger and braver than I am today. It has been a while since I don’t try for the first time an unknown language, and an unknown shower.

It is Ramadan and I am once again in a Muslim place. Not eating to get better had not been understood by my Israeli friends, nor is it here. Luckily, it is Ramadan and I am not the only one fasting.

27hours of fasting and no desire for food even inside of Mahane Yehuda That is how sick I have been. But when the Harira breaks, and the fasting of Ramadan has been suspended till is morning… When all your friends are around a table to drink their first sip of the day, to eat there is no way you can resist it even if you are sick. I sat and I ate. Close to the whole family of my friends I sat listening to conversations in Arabic I don’t understand with joy. I looked a mother next to her adult children talk and laugh. We attempted conversation in her few english words, and my barely non existing arabic. And once again I remembered how much we can get trapped in distant discussions where we know so well the language. There in a “real talk”, in one that your barely understand, you seem to get more. You seem to put more effort into listening. Or maybe you just observe all else that language would have stolen from you. I broke my fast with these all too familiar faces. I did not understand them but they knew me. I had been here before.

And then yet not feeling great I squat to shower. I remember all the other times I had squatted before. I feel thankful I am here. I feel happy to have reencountered these people I met around the world before.  I once again remember the part of “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” where the author understands why his young son can’t understand the beauty he sees in the birds on the road. The beauty he states lies on the fact that they are familiar and you recognise them. So I gently squat down remembering it all, all the places I have squatted before, all the joy that came from that act. I suddenly remembered how much joy I feel for having reencountered my friends.  And in a all too familiar sentiment flushes back through me, I realise what is so obvious,  that In both sides of this wall (that I hate so much) I feel anything else but love.


By the Seine

I seat in the TGV on our way from Paris to Marseilles. Seating in front of me is my 87 year old grandmother that no amount of complex problems in the beginning of our trip has shaken. Next to me is my 21 year old cousin, together we are going to travel Provence. Every year my grandmother says this is her last trip, but every year we see her looking happier and younger in these always beautiful but undoubtedly exhausting trips. So here we are enjoying the beauty of France.As I mentioned in my last post I was supposed to meet my friend Yonathan who is a brilliant Israeli pianist. We did and It was an absolutely fascinating night.We sat for a while in a little jazz cafe but then I suggested we walked. We met midnight in Paris, in the most agreeable summer night, and under a full moon.

We walked by the river bank of the Seine. We went down the stairs to get closer to it. We passed some young people drinking and smoking. We chose an empty bench to seat on and talk. Yonathan who is quiet and reserved was impressed by all the movement around.

We talked, and talked and suddenly a drunk man approached us saying something about the past thousand of years of human history. He had just interrupted me explaining my friend why I always talk to strangers…

I asked the man’s name.  Assab, if I am not mistaken. And then a long night started. The man carried a guitar on his back. He came from Ethiopia. He knew all there was to know about Semitic languages. He was drunk but he made full sense. It seemed sometimes like a dream. He explained he was a musician and that his grandfather was the brother of Haile Selassie’s wife and did not want him to be a musician.

At first I did not take the talk so seriously but as he went further and further into the explanations of Ethiopian history I did no longer even care how true this was. Then he told me he had once played with Brazilian famous composer Gilberto Gil. Hearing this, yet not convinced, I asked him to take his guitar out and show us something from Ethiopia.

I was accompanied by an absolutely brilliant jazz pianist and somehow I did not expect what was about to happen.

We were by the river which was placid reflecting the lights and the beauty of Paris. We were surrounded by young French boys and girls of north African descent. They were drunk and smoking weed. they were loud. They were exactly what so many people are afraid of. They had this energy of youth wildness, mixed with economic frustration, and desperate unresolved cultural and national identities. They wanted to be French but not.

But once the Ethiopian took his guitar out and started to play in different Ethiopian languages little by little stillness came. The youngsters had come before that, seeing the guitar on his back they wanted him to go to their circle and play. Assab said he was going to play to us, if they wanted to listen they could, but that they should move.

It seemed a bit unreasonable logistically as we were 3 and this group alone  had more than 10. They were unconvinced, and went back to their place. But as soon as Assab’s voice suddenly started to float around the river bank we all became flabbergasted. We were suddenly all quiet. People started to move their little gangs towards us. Assab who could speak tigre, tigrinya, amharic, arabic, and so many other languages played the sound of Africa .

And then came a Moroccan from the desert. He was a gorgeous black man looking incredibly Gnawan. He was carrying what looked like to be a guitar case. The group around us begged him to stop. He seemed to be famous in Paris, maybe in Africa as well. He hesitated but listening to Assab music he did.

He opened his case to take out a Gimbri (three stringed skin-covered bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa) people.  Suddenly, we were making music. My Israeli friend took out a flute that had broken out but in his music genius  he could still steal some melody out of it. The beautiful African girl next to me joined the songs in new invented melodic lines. I sang in Portuguese over the Ethiopian, desert, Gnawan sounds

The boy who looked like the sharpest and angriest at first suddenly said

” I never imagined this morning I would have such gift this night.”

Neither had I.

North Africans greeted themselves in their Salem aleikums . They often wondered where I came from. I asked them to guess. They guessed I was Italian usually. Yonathan, my Israeli friend, was usually taken to be Arabic. Assab when confronted with Yonathan being an Israeli Jew said

” Oh well, I am also originally Jewish and then history takes place. Invasions, expansions , conversions. it does not matter really, does it?”

Assab was a fascinating character and I did not expect anything else from him. I was however surprised when seating in between Yonathan and Ahmad.

Ahmad was loud,  extremely tribal about being north african. He greeted with extreme joy other north africans, and stronger joy and noise Moroccans. I sat there wondering what would happen when that talk would come.. As I just knew it would.

There was something fascinating about the fact that they all felt it was very important reinforcing similarity between these people coming from different places but it happened together with cherishing the culture of where they came from. I wondered now surrounded by predominantly North African Muslims how they would act to Yonathan once they found out he was from Israel.

I was not scared or worried, I was just curious. Yonathan is not like me who just talks to people so I also wondered how he felt about being  there.  And then suddenly the question came. Ahmad asked me where was  Yonathan from.

I told him to guess and he said ” Arabia”

Some silence stood still  and then

Yonathan said

” Israel”

” Palestinian?” ahmed asked

There was some  probably millisecond of silence but it seemed like ages. I thought of the irony of it… People cant even tell these differences looking. They can only identify labels…

” No. I am Jewish, yemenite descendent.”

Ahmad smiled took his hand out in Yonathan’s direction and said

“Salem my friend”.

Yonathan shook his hand. It was a hand shake that happen above me, it  happen crossing my body.

And that crossing made my thoughts meddle. As a result of my last post I got answers that made me think about that hand shake over my body. A Brazilian friend of mine who  comes from an elite in Brasil told me she thought I was looking the world through an Western European academic point of view where labels mattered. She thought in Brazil that was not the case.

I argued that maybe not to us because we had been blind by being always part of a Brazilian elite. We had never had to think about whether their was any consequence being what we were, but that was not true for all Brazilians. it was a consequence of being an elite. I agreed with her that studying in The western world had probably modified me, but I often think it is more in the sense that I am capable to see these labels now, not that I create and impose them. I could, of course, be wrong

Then I received a message from another Brazilian friend who thanked me for writing the last post. She told me she understood it well as she was Lebanese descendent in both sides.

As I sat under this crossing of hands I thought about it. There was some sense of acknowledgement of difference and acceptance to it at the same time.  But there was this huge silence just before and though and I wondered why I felt no fear. I realise a part of it is due to me being Me (.always trusting…) But the other huge came from me being Brazilian. And on that case, like in most others in my life, It meant nothing. Not nothing as in a pejorative sense but in the great sense of all, the one of being allowed to let people be empirical as the national label you carry is in this case quite politically neutral.

I sat in between a Muslim Moroccan who did not com from a Moroccan elite, and an Israeli Jewish brilliant jazz piano player. And I realised that silence I did not fear carried with it a million of possible old as time prejudices. And when the smile and handshake came I thanked the music. I thanked the shared time we had all spent before we identified our labels. And then listening to the Ethiopian song in the background I thought of the thousands of years of human history that started my conversation wi both Assab and Yonathan. In these thousand of years humans have always been trying to reconcile this desire to be particular and cherish their own kind while at the same time encountering others. It is so good when both happen simultaneously in music. Even better if you are by the Seine and the moon is full.