Israel knew I was coming.
Within seconds of disembarking Aegean flight 928 from Athens to Tel Aviv, on the darkened tarmac between the boarding stairs and the terminal shuttle bus, I find myself beset by one of Ben Gurion International’s finest. Armed and unsmiling, he demands to see my passport.
Where did I fly from? What was I doing there? Why am I travelling alone?
What is my occupation? The purpose of my visit? Do I have any friends here? What are their names?
Their names? I feel reluctant to tell him. But weary-eyed American-Jewish families and heavily tattooed UN peacekeepers sit sweating in the shuttle bus over his shoulder, looking out in disdain at the source of the hold-up as I stumble through my pre-rehearsed litany of truth and, in terms of my occupation, at least, white lie. It is currently one o’clock in the morning. By the time I go through a second grilling at passport control, where I say that I work in reality television and receive a lecture about the inherent evils of the form, it is nearly 2.30am.
“We’re fascists,” my drinking companion, Lev, says knowingly when I relate the story the following evening. “What happened to you happened because we’re fascists.” He spits the invective out between sips of Guinness, which he chases with shots of Jameson.
I nearly choke on my own beer in response. I had expected to hear Israeli criticism of Israeli policy at some point on my three-week trip, but I hadn’t expected to hear it on my first night in town, in the first bar I stumbled into, from the first person I happened to sit alongside.
“Really?” I eventually manage. “Because you’re fascists?”
“The most fascist country in the world,” he declares. “We would have known you were coming. We would have had the Aegean passenger list before your plane even left the ground and you would have raised some flags because you’re a young Western male travelling alone and so on. They would have known you were a journalist or else thought you were an activist. We hate activists here.” He pauses a moment. “Journalists, too, actually.”
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“I didn’t expect to hear that assessment until I was in East Jerusalem,” I say.
Lev laughs mirthlessly and orders another round. “That’s exactly why I live here and not there,” he says. “At least here I don’t have constant reminders of what’s happening on the other side of the wall. In Tel Aviv, I can convince myself I’m not living in a police state. At least until I meet you and you tell me about the f-cking airport, that is.”
Lev introduces me to a pair of younger men, friends of his son, who happen to be at the bar as well. The pair are in their early twenties, fresh out of the Israeli Defence Forces following their compulsory three-year, post-secondary service, and are now studying to be filmmakers. My undergraduate degree was in film and television, too, and we hit it off discussing the differences between the Australian and Israeli education systems and the likelihood of their getting work in the film industry after graduation.
“What film industry?” one of the boys says. “Israel makes fewer than 10 films a year.”
“What we need is a Middle Eastern film industry,” the other says. “Then there will many films and jobs for everyone.”
His friend laughs and shakes his head. “Which means we’ll probably wind up moving to America.”
The evening begins to to wind down some time after midnight. Leaving Lev and the bar to their own devices, the students and I wander up Allenby Street, named for Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, the Bloody Bull of the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, in the direction of my hostel. The boys are wheeling their bikes along and the Mediterranean, as warm as a bath during the day, offers a cool sea breeze to our backs.
“No offence,” one of them says, “but I’d rather you be inconvenienced at the airport than have you get through security with a bomb or something.”
“They checked me pretty thoroughly for bombs in Madrid,” I say, “and then again in Athens. I’m not sure they were stopping me because they thought I had a bomb.”
“I probably wouldn’t have stopped you on the tarmac,” the other concedes.
“Either way,” the first says, “it’s better to have too much security than too little.”
There is a crowd gathered up ahead of us on the footpath. We slow to a halt in perfect unison.
A police car is parked in the middle of the road. A put-upon, overripe officer tries with limited success to prevent people from wandering up the unblocked sidewalks, and with even less to move along those who have ceased their wandering altogether in the interest of seeing what’s going on. This is apparently an uncommon sight.A little way up the street, in the narcotic downward glow of the street lamps, a robot recalling the Mars Rover is making its way up the dividing line. The person controlling the thing is nowhere to be seen, imbuing the machine with a certain autonomy and personality. As it begins to raise its two-fingered claw in arbitrary salute, I feel like I’m watching a live-action version of Pixar’s Wall-E, only with rather higher stakes.
The robot slows, stops, and makes a jolting left-hand turn. It is now face-to-face with a motorcycle, a rubbish bin and the unattended plastic bag that is sitting between the two. The robot inches forward.
“Is this common?” I ask in an unintentional whisper, never once taking my eyes off the robot’s cautious progress towards the bins.
“Not really,” one of the film students says, turning to the other for a second opinion and receiving a quick shake of the head in confirmation. “No,” he continues. “Not in Tel Aviv.”
Those of us watching the robot’s progress are on tenterhooks. But there are plenty of indications, too, that however uncommon this may be today, there are still plenty of people around who remember a time when such occurrences were par for the course and the best plan of attack was to just get on with it. A burly fellow in a wife-beater pushes past the crowd, ignoring the warnings of the police officer, and ducks into the nearby corner store, emerging moments later with a bag of potato crisps. A middle-aged man a head shorter than me approaches and asks what’s going on. I point at the robot and he sighs. “I guess I’ll take the alley, then,” he says before ducking down a side street.
The robot inches backwards, the bag in its clutches, and to the surprise and mild terror of its audience recklessly flips it over and starts shaking its contents out onto the asphalt. Used tissues. An empty Coke can. “Move it along!” the policeman yells at the crowd. “There’s nothing to see here!”
“I haven’t seen something like that happen in a long time,” one of the film students says, a little shaken. “The bomb squad doesn’t normally come out like that, especially not in this part of the city.”
“Do they ever actually find what they’re looking for?” I ask. “Does anyone ever leave bombs just sitting around like that?”
“Not really,” the other says. “Not any more. A Hamas suicide bomber blew himself up on Allenby Street in 2002. There was the attack on Mike’s Place, too. But I haven’t seen the bomb squad rifling through the garbage like that in a long time.”
Mike’s Place is in fact a chain of places, with locations in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Eilat. The one to which the film student refers is the original, on Tel Aviv’s Herbert Samuel Promenade, which was attacked by British suicide bombers in in 2003. Those events are detailed in Blues by the Beach, a documentary directed by Joshua Faudem, who originally set out to prove that “there is more to the Middle East than seemingly endless war and terrorism”. That plan didn’t quite pan out.
I don’t make it along to Mike’s Place until several weeks after my conversation with the film students. I have just returned to Tel Aviv following a little under a week on the West Bank and after exchanging pleasantries with my barman, Jake, he asks how long I’ve been in town.
“I was here for three days a couple of weeks ago,” I say. “I got back from Ramallah this afternoon.”
A twenty-something Chicagoan who first visited Israel in his late teens, Jake decided he liked Tel Aviv so much that he used his Jewish heritage to stay. He was called up for his three years of army duty like every other person his age almost as soon as his residency papers came in. But the IDF was no Tel Aviv and Jake’s mood darkens immediately when he hears where I’ve been.
“What the hell were you doing in Ramallah?” he says. He spits out the word like Lev spat out “fascists”.
“I wanted to go over there and see what was happening,” I say.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to visit a Third World country,” he says.
“I just wanted to go over there and see what was happening,” I repeat.
“Look,” he says, “I don’t have an opinion about any of this. I just don’t want to talk about it. We have this amazing view, amazing music …”
Jake, who refuses to speak Hebrew at work — “An American-style bar should feel American,” he insists — trails off. “Can’t there be one place in Israel where we don’t have to talk about this stuff?” he says.
Of course, there is such a place, and it’s Tel Aviv itself. Mike’s Place, where Jake doesn’t have to talk about Third World countries, is a microcosm for the city at large, where Lev can pretend he doesn’t live in a police state. While it’s more than happy to recall the past — the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, the Palmach Museum and the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People all testify to the fact — Tel Aviv is nevertheless a city hell-bent on forgetting the present. Or, at least, on ignoring it. The hedonism of its beaches, its nightlife, its bars, is like the hedonism in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette or Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers: a hedonism designed to keep history at bay and to distract from it when it does get close, a hedonism that believes, or at least tries to convince itself, that it exists outside of or apart from events that are taking place less than an hour away.
Of course, in both those films, history eventually, and literally, comes crashing in through the windows: a torch-wielding mob descends on Versailles, May ’68 stirs the cinephilic ménage à trois from its slumber. At Mike’s Place, it came walking through the door, strapped to the chest of a 22-year-old Londoner, killing three and injuring more than 50. But Jake doesn’t want to talk about it.
“Just watch the documentary,” he says before noticing that I’ve finished my drink. He eyes me suspiciously for a moment and then, deciding to give me the benefit of the doubt, smiles.
“Another of the same?”