Shalom to all that (4) by Jill Cartwright
I slouched over to the open window of the lounge that Grizzly and I shared. Our apartment was on the fourth floor and looked out over a square on a little side street where Israelâ€™s national poet Bialik once lived. A sculpture of blue tiles honored this fact and the area had drawn musical academies and galleries to set up home there. On some nights, light piano music or the high vibratto of an operetta would drift through our window and mingle with the voices from the television. Today, it was serenely quiet; warm, sun-filled and serenely quiet.
When I was growing up in England, Sundays used to be like this â€“ although not so much sun-filled. The shops were closed, public transport took the day off, parents eased into the Sunday papers or slept off large Sunday lunches and as children we were always told not to go knocking on our friendsâ€™ doors and disturbing the neighbours. Not now. Now Englandâ€™s shops are open, cashing in on another day of business, and transport and people chug their way round the high street chains like it was any other day.
Even though in Tel Aviv on Shabbat, the cafes are open and filled with people and the streets and beaches are bursting with couples and pushchairs and children, there is still a sense that this is a day of rest. The buses donâ€™t run and the shops are all closed, people sleep in late and take the day easy.
Thereâ€™s many here who want to see the tradition stopped, to fight what they protest as another sign of the religious control over the country and there are some huge furniture and DIY stores that have opened on the outskirts of towns that draw in crowds of families â€“ complete with screaming babies, bored toddlers, little patience and a whole pile of stress. Like Iâ€™ve said before, Iâ€™m not religious but here I think theyâ€™ve got a point â€“ have a day of rest; who needs to buy shelves on Shabbat?
Anyway, I was looking out of the window, trying to imprint the smells and the emotions into my brain so that I would be able to conjure up the feelings of Tel Aviv on a Shabbat late into my life – and then I decided to get my camera and headed out into the streets, just in case my mental powers of recollection should fail me late in life and pictorial evidence should be required.
It was hot. I strolled down to the end of the road where the coffee shop that had been blown up was now up and running and full of people. It had been up and running and full of people about 3 days after the terror attack â€“ the speed of recovery was astonishing. Thereâ€™d had even been a piece about it in the local paper. â€œCafÃ© Olehâ€ was the title of the article (oleh means to go up in Hebrew â€“ Nice headline, I remember thinking to myself, as the first worrying signs of the newsdesk cynic started to show – but again thatâ€™s material for a whole other chapter in itselfâ€¦)
I wandered up Allenby Street, whose sleazy bars were all locked up and neon signs switched off; metal shutters covered the entrances to the stores where during the week cheap, bright clothes spilled out of the boxes at the front and deeply tanned and bleach blonde sales women stood around smoking cigarettes and shouting to each other over the happy pop music that blared from speakers all round the shop.
Grafitti scrawled on the wall next to the shop shutter promised purveyors that designer items could be found inside: Gap, Banana Republik and Calvin Kline, they assured.
Taking a right off Allenby and at the end of the street, the sea greets you, gently rippling, sparkling into the distant horizon.
I walked into a side street, into the old and crumbling Yemenite Quarter. On its flaking walls, faded posters from some local election were slowly, and over the windows of the jumbled apartments, swathes of material acted as makeshift curtains to hold off the October sun. Slight rips in the fabric offered a glimpse into the darkness, as the inhabitants – most of them foreign workers from China and the Philippines – shuffled sleepily about inside.
Outside, old women with wrinkles running like deep grooves through their face sat still and silent on the doorsteps, their hands folded in their laps, lifting them occasionally, as if in slow motion, to waft away a fly.
I sat down on a low wall, the heat of the stone seeping through to my skin. From one of small stone houses next to me, men started to sing, three or four voices â€“ a simple harmony. I donâ€™t know what it was, I donâ€™t know if it was a religious psalm or an old folk song, but as the melody floated gently from the darkened room and the smell of black coffee with cardamum mingled with the warm silent air, a heaviness settled on my chest and my heart felt ready to break.
I started picturing the sights around me, but knew a photo would never capture this so I picked myself up and walked away from the singing back up towards home. I walked up through the deserted Carmel Market, where stray cats and pigeons were picking between the bare stalls at the fallen fruit that had been trampled underfoot in Fridayâ€™s hectic sales, and back to my street.
I had plans for that night to go out with friends. I only had about two weeks left in Israel and had planned to spend them saying good-bye to them and to Tel Aviv.
But as it turns out, Tel Aviv had different plans for me â€¦..