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Friday, December 2, 2011

Last Impressions/ Lasting Impressions

Things did go according to plan, I did meet Lilli’s family, and had a very nice last afternoon with them. Her husband, Yoav, is a writer, former TV host, and fluent speaker of Arabic. It turns out that he, for an assignment, spent several months living in Umm el Fahem, documenting life there, and that that was the original contact through which Lilli got the job at the gallery. I met their three children. The youngest was in the car when Lilli picked me up, a garrulous two year old, who I enjoyed talking with even though neither of us understood what the other was saying. The older boy was knitting a scarf when we got to the house. I asked Lilli if boys knitting was common, she said no, he had learned from a friend who attended a Waldorf school. The oldest, a girl, spoke English but was there just briefly, heading out to a meeting of a group that Lilli described as similar to Girl Scouts.

They served a wonderful meal of noodles in a creamy mushroom sauce, after Lilli had texted to ask whether I liked mushrooms. She didn't know that mushrooms are what I clandestinely munch on in the supermarket. She had no idea that I was suffering from pasta withdrawal, as it doesn’t seem to be high on either the Arab or Jewish Israeli diet, or at least not in what I’d been served. I did have my few packages of quasi- Ramen noodles earlier in my trip, and there was also the box of fettucine, which I’d finally figured out how to cook on the last week of my sojourn. (as the electric burner took a very very long time to heat up, it was heat the water in the very quick electric teapot, then put it on the burner. That worked relatively well, although there was only one outlet near the counter, so I couldn’t start up the burner until the water had boiled.

Anyway, we had a nice afternoon, although I felt a little bad when I heard that they had company coming that evening for dinner, as well as an international skype call that evening to wish Lilli’s aunt in Switzerland a happy birthday. But my guilt was overcome by my delight in being there.

Back to the gallery for an odd evening of packing, alone in the gallery because it was Friday, the day it is closed. I had thought I’d take a nap before my 2 am cab ride to the airport, but was too wired for that, I guess.

The day before, just moseying around the gallery, I came across, in a small room behind the gift shop, several small works of art. I had looked longingly various times, at the other works for sale, but they were mostly too large, too fragile, and/or too expensive, or just not to my taste. But here, suddenly, were three works, all by the same artist, that I really liked. And the smallest one was the one I liked best of all. How serendipitous.

I caught Said on the run, as he often is, and asked what the price was, for it wasn’t marked. He said, $200, but for you, $100, sounding so much like a souk vendor that I had to keep from chuckling. Then, he added, actually,you can just have it, a present. Well, I wasn’t going to accept that, but did accept the $100 offer. The following night, Said came by with the promised bottle of “new” olive oil, I believe from their own trees, plus a scarf, and a necklace. I was concerned about getting the oil through customs, but it wasn’t a problem.

The artist is a woman named Sohar Tiara. I couldn’t find much about her, except a mention on the gallery’s own website that she had been part of a gallery show several years ago, curated by Said’s brother Farid. I tried to get some more info about her from Farid, but all he could give me was her phone number. And she doesn’t speak English. It’s a lovely framed piece, about ten inches square, that looks to me like pieces of embroidered ribbon, sewn onto a background that looks like handmade paper. But the mention of the artist on the website is in a group show of ceramicists. There was apparently no catalog for that show. I hope I can somehow find some more info about her.

Speaking of Farid, right before I left, I finally got him to email me the writing in English he’d mentioned to me. It is a listing of 41 what I guess you‘d call maxims, mostly philosophical, a few lighthearted. Here are my two favorites:

“My friend, who wanted to advise me, said : If I were you I’d do so and so. And I said to him,:yes, but you are not me.”

And: “He said to me,: Are you happy with your life? And I said to him: first, explain the meaning of happiness and then I tell you my reply.:

I think Farid is curating the exhibit of their brother Walid’s work that opens at the Tel Aviv Museum this month, with a corresponding exhibit at the Umm el Fahim Gallery. I don’t know who is doing the English translation for it. I am sure there are plenty of people with fluent English skills around. I had offered to Lilli to help write, or at least polish, the English copy of the gallery part of the exhibit, for the walls and/or for the website. I don’t know if they really need it, but it’s one way I can at least keep my hand in things, which is important to me.

My overriding impression from my time in Israel is of the warmth and friendliness of the people. Virtually everyone I encountered was open and welcoming. This goes for the funny friendly guide who gave the free Sandeman’s tour of Jerusalem, to 93 year old Hedvig, originally from the same Eastern European city as my grandmother, who invited me to stay with her in Haifa although we’d never met.

But, as most of my time was spent in Umm el Fahem, it is, more than anything, the hospitality of the Arab Israelis there that has struck me and stayed with me. I now read that Arab hospitalilty is well known, and it certainly has been my experience from my six weeks there. I was invited into numerous people’s homes, overnight in a few cases, served more tiny cups of strong coffee, mint tea, mint lemonade than I could count,, and a seemingly endless variety of date confectionaries and other delightful sweets.

More than anything, though, I have been struck by these folks’ desire for peace, for the lack of rancor that one might expect, given the history of their having been ousted, in many cases, from their houses and their towns to make room for the new Jewish settlers, in 1948 and since. These are citizens of Israel, and roughly 20% of the population, and yet, from everything I read, they have been treated unfairly, from the beginnings of the country up into the present. I feel the need to read some perspectives from Jewish Israelis that are reasonable, but not as focused on the Arab perspective. I want badly to believe that the Israeli government has not done the things I read about, in books by authors like Sandy Nolan (The Lemon Tree) David Goodman, Susan Nathan's The other Side of Israel, and Pamela Olsen's Fast Times in Palestine. Any recommendations, anyone?

My trip home was not as problematic as I’d anticipated. The Israeli security folks checked my bags very thoroughly, unwrapping everything and x-raying some things more than once. But they were cordial, and there was no strip search as I’d been warned there might be. Even as we pulled into the airport grounds, I heard the taxi driver mention “Umm el Fahem” and I winced, internally. But the guard merely poked his head in and said have a good trip. (although, I wondered, might he have phoned ahead to say heads up, traveler from Umm el Fahem”? )

I was taken into a separate, curtained room, for a “metals search.” That was my one moment of fear. But it was just a wand search, no worse than what I’ve endured in Massachusetts more than once. The reason for concern was largely that another volunteer at the gallery, last year, had been strip searched and otherwise harassed when they heard she’d been in Umm el Fahem. The city, you see, has been the site of protests and some violence in the past, and it seems that most Israelis regard it as a place to be feared. So we’d spent much time strategizing about what to say about where I’d been and what I’d been doing in the country. All pretty much needless, I’d say, especially as the first question they asked me, where I had just come from, (maybe the guard at the airport entrance really did call ahead) required a direct answer, which was, obviously, Umm el Fahem.

The only real problem I encountered was when I finally got to the ticket desk, and they had no record of my ticket. It turns out that it had somehow been erased when they had to change my booking on the way over, changing me to Air France because I had missed a connection. Resolving that took as much time as the security, and I was nervous that I would miss my flight. By this point, I was literally the only passenger left in the terminal, and it was about a half hour before my flight. The security people and the ticketing people had nothing much to do, so a few of them came over to chat with each other, and with me. One asked what I’d been doing in Umm el Fahem, another had heard of GoEco, the organization I came through. It was all very friendly. And, while before I did have some suspicions about how genuine their friendliness had been, now I had already passed their security so I didn’t see any possible ulterior motives in their friendliness.

All got resolved, of course, in the nick of time, and I had a mostly uneventful, although very long trip home.

Lasting impressions, beside the friendliness of the people – Said is a man with a dream, to create a museum that expands upon the gallery he has already built and put over 15 years of energy into. His demeaner is unassuming, and you would hardly expect him to be the driving force behind a large scale project like this. Until, that is, he begins to speak about his passion for the gallery and planned museum. I of course could only understand the speeches he made in English. And his English is fair, but limited. When I first arrived, he mentioned that he would like to spend some time with me working on his English skills, something I would have loved to do. But there never seemed to be the time. Anyway, once I heard his passionate speech to an English language group of visitors, I realized that his limited English was not a hinderance, and, as I later said to him, was perhaps even an unintended asset. For you could hear him struggling to express himself, and his strong beliefs, in a foreign language, and the effect was powerful, and poetic.

Other strong impressions – one aspect of Muslim culture that continues to fascinate me is the issue of the hijab, the headscarf. I notice that I look at Muslim women differently, now that I am home, as individuals much more than I did before. I still feel puzzled by the concept, and the reasons women choose to wear it, or not, and feel the need to read more, and if possible, talk more with Muslim women.

I enjoyed all the various jobs I did at the gallery, working with the kids. ( I hope they will continue to sing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and even pass it on.) Working with the staff, even if many of our sessions fizzled, I still wound up forming relationships with them that were meaningful. I won’t forget folding headscarves for the next school group while discussing the reasons they wore them. And I won’t forget discussing the photos in the Memories of Place Exhibit with Mohammed while he practiced his English and tour guide skills with me.

I certainly won’t forget the people whose homes I visited, with Said and Siham, and on my own, nor the parties for the new baby and for the man who found out he didn’t have cancer.

Nor will I forget inspiring nonagenerian Hedwig, who welcomed me into her home in Haifa, cooked for me, even threw a little party where I got to meet some of the other Czernowitzers. (people from the city my grandmother and aunt came from.)

I got to know a couple of the art teachers somewhat well. Halima brings school groups through the gallery in the morning, works at a school in the afternoons. I was particularly intrigued by the activity in the gallery of Fatima Abu Baker’s self portraits, veiled and unveiled. Halima had each group of children play with head scarves, and every day I could I came down to watch them, fascinated. Halima wears a headscarf herself, but told me she chose to start wearing it just nine years ago. I wish I could have found more time to talk to her about it.

Nasrin teaches the older kids in the Saturday classes. She is a talented artist herself. I was very impressed by the installation I saw on her website, and a wonderful outdoor mural she painted in Haifa.

Suzi, my roommate for the first three weeks and comrade in volunteerism, is also a talented artist. She is in her 60’s, describes herself as an emerging artist, and only began her artistic career about ten years ago, after retiring from a corporate career. She described some of her pieces and process to me, and to a group of the teachers, and I was fascinated. Rather than my trying to describe her work to you, check out her website at and/or her blog at, for a different take on our experiences.

And I want,once more, to mention the young women, Eiman, Layla, and Rawan, Saids, daughter, who all worked at the gallery, as well as Ola, who had worked there previously, and came to replace Rawan when she went off to the university in Jerusalem. Eiman is very traditional, and austere in her dress and manner. Yet she can be very bubbly, too, especially when talking about her fiancĂ©e, and the diamond birthday ring he gave her. Layla is very modern (is modern even the proper word?), choosing not to wear a hijab, and always wearing fashionable clothes. Rawan is sweet, only 18, always wore a headscarf except for the night we went to their house for a goodbye party for her, where she startled me with her cascading dark hair, and I momentarily didn’t recognize her. And Ola, who is waiting to hear the results of her licensing exam. I took to her immediately, she has a very kind and wise face, and seems older than her 22 years. She and I are now facebook friends, to which she posts often. I can’t understand any of it, but enjoy seeing the Arabic lettering!

Well, I have to let go of this saga, for now. Although I hope my connection with the gallery will continue and I will at some point have additional info to relate. One last impression, which hasn’t much to do with anything else, but which I feel compelled to relate. We didn’t purchase much food at all, having been provided with a fridge full, and receiving almost constant gifts and leftovers from various celebrations. I did, though, become a regular customer of the closest bakery. On the days when I walked by and hadn’t yet consumed the previous day’s purchase, I smiled and waved, and the baker did the same. The remarkable thing, aside from the deliciousness of the goods, was that his cookies were absolute dead ringers to the cookies of my childhood in the Bronx, the ones my mother purchased and brought home in a white box tied with white string. We called them “bakery cookies.” !! Not just the tastes, but the design of the cookies were the same, the round ones with jelly in the middle, the curved ones with the ends dipped in chocolate. I ponder but haven’t yet tried to find out how these identical confections from such disparate places could be just the same. It isn’t as though the Bronx cookies had an Israeli derivation, I would guess they might have descended from Eastern European cooking. Any guesses or explanations??

Oh, and by the way, I just came across a 200 shekel bill I didn’t know I had. That in addition to the change I never had a chance to spend at the airport because of the delays in their locating my ticket. Anyone planning a trip to Israel in the near future? The shekels are yours if you promise you’ll visit the gallery!