Icing on the cake
It only takes a hot summer day, a cake shop and a little girl's birthday to make it almost unbearable to stand this country's racism.
First I had to go to the mall to buy a birthday present for my daughter. Poor thing. A birthday during summer vacation, and in the second half of August, too, when most of her classmates are on holiday, either in Israel or in foreign parts. True, she holds a party at the start of the school year, but it still grates on her that the official day passes unrecognized. As happens every year, her sad expression on the morning of the big day forced us to improvise something at the last minute. We were able, almost without threatening, to recruit a couple we know to come over in the evening, have some cake, sing and clap hands when the child blows out the candles and makes a wish.
"Are you sure you won't get upset?" my wife asked, surprised to discover that I was ready to do the shopping for the improvised birthday party.
I know she meant that I would most likely get upset at the terrible crowding that would await me in the mall, at how hard it would be to find a parking place. After that I had to go to the other side of town to buy a cake. "Only from there," my wife requested, "a chocolate cake that will be suitable for the children. Are you sure you want to do this?" "Sure," I replied as I left, "and don't worry - I won't get upset." The truth is that I left the house quite happily. I am alone, oh God, how I longed to be alone already. In another moment the air conditioner in the car will soften the heat, I will listen to what I want on the radio and not only to the children's songs I've been subjected to nonstop since the day camps ended.
A long line of cars was waiting to enter the mall, but that did not affect my tranquillity. I immediately tuned into Army Radio, which is always my station for getting by security guards and checkpoints, and tried to project normalcy and smile even when some professor for national fortitude, or something like that, spoke with an interviewer who afterward claimed that those on the right could rightfully feel deprived because the three bodies - academia, the media and the courts - are considered center-left.
My car approached the security check just as I was wondering what country I had been in when I missed the new definition of the Israeli left, according to which leftists are those who oppose massacres perpetrated without good reason.
"Shalom," the security guard said, looking into the car.
"Shalom," I answered back.
"How are you?" he asked, trying to check out my accent, hesitating, confused, not knowing whether he should ask to see some ID.
"Good," I replied, knowing well that I must avoid words that are liable to underscore my accent.
The insecure security guard swept the car with his eyes and I smiled, knowing he would not find a hint of my national origins. "What's that?" he asked suddenly, gesturing with his eyes.
"What?" I asked in a panic.
"What's that, Farid el-Atrache?" he asked, pointing to the CDs in the compartment on the driver's door.
My wife, I'll show her what's what, a million times I told her not to push her oriental stuff into exposed places in the car. But no, she insists on cultural and national pride. Here, fine and dandy, her Farid el-Atrache, what does she see in him, anyway, I thought to myself as I gazed, my face burning with anger, at the incriminating CD. "Oy," I responded with a sigh of relief when I saw the CD the guard was pointing at, "No, it's not what you thought," I told him, and smiled.
"Not Farid?" the guard asked.
"No," I said, and because I knew that saying the name of the Israeli singer would give me away immediately, I took the disc from the compartment and handed it to the guard. "Evyatar Banai," the guard said, and smiled. "Ya know, in the photo here, it's the spitting image of Farid, no?"
"Never heard of him," I said, and shrugged my shoulders.
I bought the present with no problem. There aren't really any long lines at the checkout counters. It looks more like the mall is crowded because it's used by the Jerusalemites as an air-conditioned pasture where they can let the children loose. The same guard saluted me as I left and I smiled back at him and stayed with the radio for a while longer. Boy, that radio gets on my nerves. Really, I don't know why I do it to myself. Why I insist on listening to current events and talk shows that keep reminding me where I live. Another academic is being interviewed, this one from some place that's called the Center for Zionist Strategy, whatever the hell that is. Why does it sound scarier than the Iranian reactor? And who are these Im Tirtzu people? What do they want, anyway? How much longer will they claim against me that the only reason I enjoy freedom of speech is that I don't live in an Arab state?
How I would like to listen to Farid, I thought as I looked for a CD that would silence the national spirit until I got to the bakery my wife wanted, on the other side of the city.
"Shalom," I said with a smile to the girl who sat on an elevated chair on the other side of the counter. She didn't reply, making do with staring at me, creating the impression that she was immersed in a radio program in which a new speaker was inveighing against the academic boycott of Israel.
I checked out the cakes in the cooler. They didn't make much of an impression, for sure not the kind of impression that would make my wife insist that I drive clear across town for them. But what do I know about cakes, and anyway I really didn't mind driving here. But I don't care for this salesgirl. I could feel her gaze like a dagger in my back. And when I turned around gently toward her my feeling was verified: she actually was looking at me with a kind of frozen, almost frightened gaze.
"Excuse me," I said politely, ignoring her stare. "I need a chocolate cake that's suitable for children."
"There's the upper one with whipped cream and there's the bottom one with nuts."
"Hang on a minute," I said, and called my wife. I asked her in Arabic which cake she preferred and the saleswoman absolutely did not stop giving me that unnerving look, and now, hearing the Arabic, she produced a hint of an incomprehensible smile and covered her mouth with her hand. "Whipped cream," I said, relaying my wife's request after hanging up.
"But that costs NIS 150," the salesgirl said, not budging and continuing to smile in that peculiar way. That's it, no more, I couldn't stand it any longer. What does she mean, NIS 150? Hey, did anyone ask her how much it is? And why doesn't she get up? What makes her so sure that I won't buy the cake when I hear the price? The little slut, she thinks that because I'm an Arab I will never in my life buy a cake that costs NIS 150? Honey, you're messing with the wrong Arab here, and on the wrong day. You're messing with a media man of stature who has had it up to here with the cruddy racism of this country, who is sick of the way all you nothings treat Arabs. You don't know who you're messing with here. I'll talk to your manager, I'll get this place closed down, I'll sue you out of sight. I'll see to it that you're fired before this day is out, you and your defective look and that smile that's glued to your face.
"You'll be hearing from me," I told the salesgirl, who remained seated. She now looked a lot more worried, though.
"Fine," I told her as I stalked out, "you have good reason to be worried." I slammed the door behind me.
And my wife, I thought to myself, my head about to explode from excess cranial pressure, where does she come off sending me to this dumb place? Of all the dozens of bakeries she has to choose the most racist one of all. "Hello," I screamed at her over the phone before even getting into the car. "Tell me, what is it with you? Couldn't you send me somewhere a little more normal to buy a bloody chocolate cake?"
"What happened?" my wife asked.
"Why do you insist? Why? Why are you so stubborn? That's what I want to understand."
"Sorry," she replied. "I just like them because they make it a policy to employ people with mental problems. Did something happen? You worry me."
"What?" I stammered and glanced back at the bakery. "No - It's just - I was confused - I didn't find - And it's so hot ..."
"I knew you'd get upset," she said.
"No, no. Sorry. Here, I found it, I found it. I'll be right there, with real whipped cream, you said, right?"
I returned to the store with head bowed. I took the cake with the whipped cream to the counter. The salesgirl was busy with another customer and didn't even look at me. "But that one costs NIS 20," she told the customer, who wore a skullcap. He paid and thanked her. On the radio they were talking about a syllabus that's not Zionist enough in some political science department.