Who knew the Hungarian Pastry Shop was a hotbed of Arab socializing?
Last week my co-worker Ghassan accompanied me there. He is burly, balding, and boisterous in joking, flirting, and defending his rights. He calls himself Palestinian, though his kind in the media are known (in deference to Israel) as “Israeli Arabs.”
We work together in an office overwhelmed with books, under the Middle East librarian at Columbia University. The librarian being away a few weeks, we too have been on vacation – paid vacation, with internet. Ghassan gestured at a stack of books next to me and said, “Are those all for me? I have lots of other stuff to do.” When Frank is here, Ghassan gets his spines up at Frank’s griping about his slow pace. He deliberately calls him, “My master,” and pours a cup of tea in a leisurely way, a prickly soul peering out through his eyes.
Just before 5 pm, he began recounting a story. “Moshe Dayan, a high minister, was coming to our town for the opening of our new school. It was the 30th anniversary of the founding of Israel, so they decided we deserved a school, after 30 years. All the kids were lined up, holding Israeli flags, police were all over. So when Dayan gets out of his limo, I yell “Go home Zionist criminal!!” The place was – was – “(his hands are turmoil, pandemonium) “and all the kids drop the flags and run. The police come and grab me and put me in a car. My friend who gives me a cigarette – they throw him in too. I was in 3 or 4 days. What did I do? The chief of police beat me, but what could they do? So they let me go.
So now, all the schoolkids know about me; its like a legend, they all say, “Are you the one who spit in the minister’s face?” I started the movement there. Before, there was no consciousness. All the small merchants wanted peace and quiet with the state. But after I did that, no high official of the state came there for 7 or 8 years.” He smiles proudly. Ghassan is rough-and-tumble; but his sense of etiquette and dignity is as strong as his sense of justice. He regales us with examples of the library supervisor’s inexplicable need to rub employees’ faces in small mistakes or failings. He regales us with the story of bidding for something on E-Bay on a whim, and then trying to retract his bid – which, according to the listed rules, was a straightforward process. He traded e-mails with an indignant old woman in Ohio. When she accused him of dishonesty, he was amazed. He spread his hands wide in telling us. Rather than letting the matter drop, or answering with curses, he asks her why she considers him dishonest and a “bad person.” His politeness had never failed him; he had offered to pay any fine to E-Bay. They finally exchanged best wishes for each other’s children and families. “Why did she say I was dishonest?” asked Ghassan, still incredulous. “Because she thinks everyone is bad.”
“It’s laziness,” I said.
“No, its no imagination,” he said.
“Well, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?” He is a Marxist.
We walked out into the bitter cold, and I notice he hasn’t brought a hat. I hand him an extra one I have in my pocket and he gruffly refuses. I insist, and insist again, and he relents. As we walk past St. John’s Cathedral I talk about how mainstream history hides stories too interesting for Hollywood, such as the tale of the Irish immigrant St. Patrick’s battalion fighting in the US invasion of Mexico, which switched sides once they realized they were playing the British to an Ireland of brown-skinned peoples.
When we settled down inside at a small square table, somehow the turbulent currents in him turned, and he told of the indignity of trying to place his drug addicted brother in an Israeli rehab clinic. “Do you know what that ‘doctor’ said to me” He asked, “With my brother sitting right there? He said, ‘when they are like this for 20 years, what can we really do?’ I wanted to explode. I mean, how can he call himself a professional? What do these people learn that makes them want to mistreat people?” Apparently when Ghassan came back from Israel his supervisor handed him a pink slip for staying too long. Ghassan consulted the law, and fought back, saying federal law guarantees 3 months leave in the Family Leave Act. They relented.
Ghassan looks at me, his brow expressively gloomy. Looking up at someone looking about for a table, a cold gust trailing them in, Ghassan’s face burst out into a grin. “Digor!” he cried, reaching up and around the man’s neck and pulling down his face to press against his own; left – and right. Digor was a small half-bald man, an Arab Phil Collins whose woman-hungry eyes were mismatched with baby-round eyebrows under a huge forehead. He had a morose air, which somehow incensed a dangerously intense hilarity in his listeners.
Right off he told a joke in English. “Once there was a man in an Arab town who claimed to know magic. Wanting to seduce young boys, he found one who said, “Yes, I want to know your magic.” So the man took him out into the desert, dropped something, and when the boy bent to pick it up, he stuck his dick in. ‘Hey, why is your finger in my ass?’ shouted the boy. The man said (here Digor waggled his 10 fingers), ‘Look! Its magic.’” Such was Digor. His aim was to profane any and all.
Ghassan took out his tiny cigarette-rolling device, explaining he had just found it in a store. “In Israel they are all over,” he said, laying the tobacco on the pink rubber scroll, closing it, licking the edge of the paper, scrolling it in and unhooking it, removing a complete cigarette.
“Are you really gonna go out and smoke?” I asked.
“Hey, its my pleasure,” he said, “If I enjoy something, I enjoy it no matter what.” He held the cigarette a long time between his fingers as we talked, tapping it against his forehead, brushing it across a cheek, even toying with it in his mouth. He mimed his pleasure while telling me of his wish to return to his home and build a library. “I want to find something that is a business on one side, and helping people on the other. Maybe in the library I can give courses. You wanna come and teach over there?”
I nodded, mind running over the various permutations of months: reunion in May, fieldwork in China maybe in September – hmm. Maybe 6 months. I haven’t been on a plane in a long time. He is already talking about looking around for a peanut butter grinding machine for his brother. “I was looking on Google for information and a website from Mali came up. It was a nonprofit there, and I thought, ‘we can learn a lot from these underdeveloped countries.’”
“They have to be creative,” I said, “things are not handed them on a platter.”
“Exactly,” he said, “and really, we in Israel are still a developing society.”
“Can you bike around in your town?” I asked.
“Biking? Yes, there are places,” he said, and assured me that there was indeed a middle class of merchants eager to pay for their kids to learn English. In my mind I was trying out the riding trails, there in Palestinian Israel, near the Green Line.
Ghassan had to return home; his wife was ill. He is already preparing for the possibility it is cancer. “That’s one thing I learned in America,” he said. “I see old people, 70, 80, enjoying life, learning new things. Old people are very active.”
“The lucky ones not in nursing homes,” I said.
“True, the lucky ones. But from this culture of learning and change a whole lifetime, I know this is what I want. Whatever happens with – whatever happens, I plan to live a long time, trying everything.” He left to return home and Digor said he knew the warmest place in the café: next to the door. I followed him, not quite believing. I slid onto a bench inside the front window, and felt the warmth of the radiator underneath seep up through my butt. We talked, and then argued, about the wisdom of voting for Nader in 2000. “Do you really believe Gore would have been exactly like Bush?” I asked, and opened up a book and we fell into a grumpy silence.
Then an old woman came, an Iraqi by the name of Haifa, and a Jordanian man named Ahmed, and I listened eagerly. I kept looking at Haifa’s face, it was so intriguing. She kept laying her head on the table, overcome with laughter at Digor’s succinct punch lines. It was an action I associate with teenage girls, and it charmed me in a woman in her 50’s or ‘60’s. They spoke in Arabic and I occasionally poked in. I caught an odd word repeated several times by Digor. I finally asked him, “What is ‘karakeel’?” Haifa’s curly black-haired head flopped onto the table. She looked up.
“This is Digor’s special word, something we don’t say in Baghdad.”
“Its a kind of big wool shoe they put on a baby’s feet when they are first born,” he said.
“Karakeel!” laughed Haifa.
“Kalakeel, Kalakeel,” corrected Ahmed.
When they found I was Mormon, Digor asked about polygamy. Then he told a story about Aisha, the prophet Muhammad’s favorite wife. “He chose her when she was 7,” he said, “and married her when she was 9.”
“9!” I said, “No way, that’s not possible.”
“Very possible,” said Digor. “One day, when Aisha turned 9, her father Abu Bakr, lifted Aisha’s dress – then they wore no underwear – and put some dates in it. He told her to hold up the hem of her dress and carry the dates over to Muhammad’s house. She went over there and said, “Do you want a date?”
“Come on,” I said, appealing to Haifa, “Is it true?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “I’m not Muslim either.”
“You’re putting me on,” I said.
“Dead serious,” he insisted. “Ask Ghassan tomorrow.” I dutifully wrote “Aisha – 9 – dates” on my hand.
That was not the end of a long night with the Hungarian Arabs, a little-known ethnicity, migrants from their own lands. I felt afloat on the river of their sociality, an art of conversation and collective pleasure we Americans can rarely tolerate, and even less, prioritize. Unmediated talk? Just the sound of voices? How awkward! And how human – all too human.