After the nonstop fun of Amman and Beirut, I become reflexive sitting in a cold house on a quiet street in Tel Aviv.
I’m sitting in the house I’dm renting in Tel Aviv. It’s in the middle of nowhere, a twenty minute drive from the center of the city where all my friends and the bars and restaurants are. It’s just me out here and two cats who scream all the time. Even when I’dm petting them, if I lift my hand up too long, they scream at me. Meow. All the time. Yep, there they go. Screaming right now. I realize that it’s an adjustment, here. That time in Amman was so strange. Working like a maniac all day. Meeting Muslims who want to kill us, meeting sweet people who just want some peace, meeting these Iraqis who make me so sad. And then going out drinking and eating all night. Every day there were new reporters coming from Baghdad or from London or New York and every night was some other reporter’s last night. So this house feels empty, sad. Writing that, I just got up and took out my iPod so I could have some music. I found myself, today, excited that the war is coming. Excited that excitement is coming again. I remember my life, just a few months ago, in LA and then New York when I was home most nights, watching TV or whatever, hoping that I could get together some friends a couple nights a week. I never worked past 5 unless I had something big to finish. I never worked on the weekends. I always got eight hours sleep. It’s been so much fun, the last month, working every day, sleeping only a few hours and then waking up excited to get going again. Being here, in Tel Aviv, it feels like I’dm returning to a sort of normal life and I have to say, I don’t like it. I don’t want to do it. I was trying to make some plan tomorrow, something cool. Maybe drive to Hebron and interview those settlers or go to Ramallah and try to find something going on, then go to the American colony hotel in Jerusalem where all the reporters hang out and meet some new people and drink and laugh and talk about our adventures. But then I remembered that I have to set up a bank account, I have to file my expenses, I have to stock my fridge. It’s New Years tomorrow, but none of my friends have any plans. They just want to stay in. They say Tel Aviv is horrible on New Years, all these terrible people drive in from out of town and get drunk and annoying.
I started a Hebrew class today. My Hebrew’s pretty good. I can carry on a good conversation and interview people, but I’dm far from fully fluent. The class was good, at my level. They’dve been meeting a few months, so the teacher asked me to explain who I am to them. I told them what I’dm doing here and what I’dve been doing the last month and I felt like I was showing off, being false or something. This is something a lot of the foreign correspondents talked about, the ones who have a lot more experience than I do. You go home, for a few hours you tell everyone stories about your adventures and they think it’s cool, but they’dve been leading their lives and you realize you’re disconnected. I think the loneliness and the disconnection is the big price you pay for this exciting life. Another constant theme among the reporters who are single is that there’s no way to meet anyone doing this, there’s no way to keep up a relationship with someone back home. They get excited by the job and then they get sick of you leaving all the time. The single reporters talk about the married ones, the ones with kids, with such envy. How do they do it? But the married ones talk about similar things, how their spouses don’t understand. Their kids are always mad at them. They miss everything. This Christmas, since nothing big was going on, a lot of the married people flew home and said it was the first Christmas they’dve had at home in years. I feel kind of ridiculous writing this. I mean, I’dve been a foreign correspondent for exactly five weeks. Most of the people I met have been doing it for years and years. Some of them have been continuously on the road for ten years, with brief stops wherever they call home. One guy has an apartment in New York that he’s never seen. Someone arranged it for him a few months ago, but he’s never been able to go there. He said he thinks he broke up with his girlfriend, he’s not really sure (you hear that kind of thing a lot, actually). I don’t know how long I’dll be doing this. I only have a contract through February and some days I think I’dll go home then and put all this behind me.
But most of the time, I don’t want that. I want to stay. At least ’til the end of the war. And then I want to go to Iraq and see the aftermath. That’s going to be the interesting story. The war will be a war. We already know enough about what Iraq is like now in the Saddam era. The post-War Iraq will be fascinating. Who knows what’s going to happen when this country is freed from that dictator. There will be bloodshed, most people think. A few weeks in which all those mukhabarat guys who made everyone’s life miserable will be ripped apart in the streets. And then the real interesting things happen, as people try to figure out who they’dve become through all this. We heard all those stories about East Germany after the wall fell: how husbands found out their wives were spying on them, their best friends were spying on them. That’dll happen. And then all those many, many broken lives will somehow start to be repaired. And that’s if things go reasonably well. What if Saddam does destroy the entire country, as he’s apparently threatened to do. What if the war goes badly. I want to be here for that, I want to go to Iraq for that (I assume the visas will be easier to come by then). And then it will take some time to figure out what the real impact on the region will be. People hate America so much in the Arab world, how will that hatred manifest itself. How will things change. So, some days, I think I just want to go back to New York in March and forget all this. But then other days, most days, I want to just stay here and find out what the hell is going to happen. It feels like the center of the world right now. I’dve started obsessing about the expense of maintaining a home in New York and one here. I desperately hope I can do that. I’d love to fly home to New York every few weeks and then come back. But that’dll cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.
Here’s something strange: Tel Aviv feels so calm, so removed from any sort of conflict. When I arrived on Saturday, after Beirut, I couldn’t believe it, how peaceful and pleasant and just calm it felt. I flew from Beirut to Amman and had to sit in the airport for a few hours. The flight to Tel Aviv is not posted on any of the departure screens. They don’t want to give terrorists that edge in knowing which gate to attack. You have to ask around and find where there gate is. And the gate they have for the Tel Aviv flight is way off down a corridor from the rest of the gates, which are all crammed together. I was the first one at the gate and I sat there, listening to my iPod. All these young people started coming in and they were talking Hebrew. I felt a panic. I spent a month in Amman and I felt afraid to even think in Hebrew. A few times, waiting for an elevator or walking down the street, I found myself singing a Hebrew song and I’d feel terrified, idiotic, self-destructive. And here I am in Amman, surrounded by Hebrew. I couldn’t believe their stupidity. None of the Israelis had spent time in Amman. They were all young, just out of the army, and on their way home from India. It’s sort of a tradition for Israelis to travel the Far East for a few months after the army and these ones found cheaper flights on Royal Jordanian than they could on El Al. When we landed in Tel Aviv I felt such relief, like I could just be myself and not worry about someone wanting to kill me. Which is kind of ridiculous, since there are a lot more people who are trying to kill people in Tel Aviv than anywhere else in the world. I got home, took a nap, and then went to dinner with a friend. We walked on the beachfront then walked around Neveh Tzedek, my favorite part of the city. It’s where all the oldest houses in town are, oriental style, ornate and beautiful, not the street after street of three-story stucco and concrete modernist monstrosity that is most of Tel Aviv. We ate at this lovely restaurant, Nana, in this interior garden they have. The walls are all exposed stone and there are plants everywhere and the food was great. I’dve described Tel Aviv as a sort of Mediterranean fantasy place, a place where (most days) there is no Middle East conflict, there is just having a good dinner and a nice walk and a good conversation about relationships. In a way, it makes me sad, it makes me realize that the conflict can continue for a long time, because the people here are able to ignore the conflict, they can just lead a normal life. But it also makes me happy, happy that my friends here can find some happiness and fun in the middle of all this. Of course, they are aware of the conflict and in powerful ways it affects everyone all the time. But it’s a lot more subtle than in Amman or Beirut or the West Bank. And, at least with my friends, the conflict isn’t discussed much. People talk about work, about love, about anything that isn’t politics and war.
My last night in Beirut was another blast. Just so fun. We went to this amazing restaurant called Centrale, it’s widely considered the best one in town. It’s built on the site of some old Ottoman mansion that was all but destroyed in the war. Rather than rebuild the house to look like it used to’das they’dve done in many parts of Beirut’the architect built this gigantic steel mesh superstructure around the house. You see the old yellow stone walls and archways through the mesh, you see the bullet holes and the disintegration that makes the stone look like it’s been eaten away by acid. But there’s this massive, modern, clean black steel all around it. Inside, the place looks the set of some German expressionist play about corporate excess. There is no sign of the old inside. It’s all big black steel walls and glass. Half the dining room is designed to look like a giant boardroom table or the meeting place of some futuristic government. It’s one giant semi-circular table and you sit around the outside, so your friends are to your left and right and you look across the table at the people on the other side. There are cuts into the table, so waiters can walk around and bring you your food. We didn’t sit there, we sat at a regular sort of table, but a highly stylized one with sleek black chairs. At the table next to us was a group of rich Iraqis who were, we’re convinced, showing off for us by speaking loudly in English and talking about how good life is under Saddam. They were doing it as a joke, they obviously don’t like Saddam, but I think they were trying to provoke the Americans. At one point, this party came in: two men in expensive leather overcoats and a gorgeous tall woman in a sleek black dress. My Lebanese friend told me he can tell they’re from the gulf, probably from Saudi Arabia. Beirut is filled with these people, men who spend their lives in galabiya robes and keffiyes, women who always wear those big, shapeless black dresses and hijabs. And they come to Beirut and go all out. They’re always the most stylish and slutty looking. Above the dining room, built into the ceiling, is an enormous steel tube. My Lebanese friend told us that’s the bar. There’s a slim, glass, circular elevator on one side of the dining room and it takes you up to the bar. When we got there, we immediately decided it’s the best bar in the world. I’dm not exactly sure what makes it so great. It’s long and narrow and the walls and ceiling are round, it really is a big tube. The walls and ceiling are constantly opening and closing, probably some computer that regulates the temperature. For a place that people told me is the hippest spot in Beirut, it was so friendly. You stand with your friends drinking and you just easily start talking with the people around you. One guy, a 20-sometihng with a shaved head, said he’s there every day. He said he’s dreaming, begging for peace, because he knows Beirut will become the capital of the Middle East again once peace arrives. I spent a long time talking with the son of some big shot in the PLO; the guy is a money manager of some kind who also works in Palestinian politics. The guy was so cool and sophisticate and smart. He knows a lot more about the inner workings of Israeli politics than I do and he’s so practical. He has anger, sure. But he convinced me that he really does just want to get this damn two-state solution done and start doing the real work of building a nation, making some money, making the Middle East a normal place.
This is one of the most confusing, difficult things. I get angry at some of the stupid Arabs I met and I get angry at the stupid Israelis I talk to. But I also have spent so much time talking with such reasonable, good people on both sides. I find I naturally am sympathetic with whoever I talk to and I start feeling like I’dm a big liar. That I have to find some consistent position and present it to everyone. But I don’t know how to do that. When people are reasonable, their views are so damn reasonable. I can fully understand why Palestinians are just really pissed off that their family used to have a house and land and now they don’t and they don’t even have a country and they’dve been trying to get one for so long and they just don’t seem to have any pull in the world that can get it for them. And then, less than 24 hours later, I’dm sitting in Tel Aviv and it’s so damn reasonable that people don’t want to get blown up, they don’t want to have to worry about taking busses and they don’t want to have to pick restaurants based on the security there so they won’t be exploded in the middle of desert. I understand why people in Tel Aviv are relieved that the army is in the West Bank and there haven’t been any bombings recently. And I also understand why the Palestinians are furious that the entire West Bank is under lock and key. I’dve said for a long time that both sides are reasonable and both sides are crazy; both sides are right and both sides are wrong. Both sides are victims and both sides have done so much to screw the whole thing up. But it’s hard to take that kind of view and DO something with it. It’s hard to deal with that when you’re in a bar and having a great conversation with someone you like. And it’s particularly hard when you know that if you say the wrong things someone might overhear and you might become a target. So, sometimes I’dm just sympathetic with whoever I’dm talking with. I just agree or at least am sort of noncommittally listening. But then I feel like a coward, a fraud. If they only knew what I was just saying to someone else the night before. Thank god this website is anonymous. I’dm already embarrassed because I know some people reading this know me and whatever side they’re on might be annoyed or angry. I have fantasies of coming out of all this with a book or something that lays out everything I feel and see. But then I get scared and think there’s just no way to write one document that accounts for the whole. I’dll just come off like an idiot, an ever-malleable fool.