Munir Dweik
The visitor: Munir Dweik at the Hatikva market this week. Photo by Miki Kratsman
Text size

A great miracle happened here: Munir Dweik, our devoted taxi driver in Gaza, received a permit to visit Israel, for the first time in 18 years. He and his friend Said al-Kalut used to drive us around in their ancient Mercedes - through the alleyways of Jabalya, to the killing fields of Beit Hanoun, to the wretched homes of Dir al-Balah and the bereaved families in Khan Yunis. We roamed together between Gaza City and Rafah, chasing the stories of the Gaza Strip.

Munir and Said both grew up as laborers in Tel Aviv, and that's where they spent the best years of their lives. They had a dream: to return, even for just a short visit, just once, to the landscapes of their childhood, to the chicken-plucking machines of Hatikva market, to the watermelon stalls of the Carmel market, to the long-gone Jaffa-to-Gaza taxi stand, to their old friends and bosses.

We had not seen them since November 2006, when the gates of Gaza were closed to us. We remained in touch by phone, though, in times of calm and times of blood and destruction. Last week, Munir called me in great excitement: He had obtained an entry permit to come to Israel for a few days, thanks to an Italian aid organization he works for. This past Sunday we met in Lod, and together we set out to visit the Hatikva market and spend the day in Tel Aviv. It was an incredibly moving day, for him and for us, this visit to Altneuland, the old-new land, his and ours.

Massive hugs between friends who haven't seen one another in more than four years, Munir all dressed up, and this time it's we who are driving him, in a hybrid vehicle - he's never seen anything like it. The ensuing hours would be ones of wonder, excitement, embarrassment, turmoil, distress, joy and suspense, all mixed up and all under control.

Would they remember him at the market? How would they treat him today, at a time when Qassams are raining down? Back then they called him "Avi" or sometimes "Abed." He was a kid then, but he's not anymore.

It has been more than 20 years since he saw Yigal the Persian, Motti the Yemenite and Rimon, whose phone numbers he has kept since then. He still remembers the kapparot prayer - "zeh halifati, zeh temurati, zeh kaparati" he recites, swinging his hands over his head in imitation of the ritual, as he did then, on Yom Kippur eve in the Hatikva market, for customers who took him for a Jew.

Ben-Gurion Airport 2000 to the right, the new "Fast Lane" to the left, the Hiriya dump has become a park - it's all new to him. The country is developing in huge strides. Quietly drinking in the views through the car window, he says that in the five days he's been in Israel he's felt calm, in a way he hasn't felt in Gaza for years - even though a bomb went off in Jerusalem the day he arrived last week. "Here I'm not nervous. In Gaza, I'm nervous 24 hours a day."

His friends in Gaza gave him a shopping list, the way we used to do back in the 1950s and 1960s to the lucky few who sailed for Cyprus. Sandals for Said, hot peppers for a neighbor, sweets for the kids, cigarettes for everyone and above all - bread, hubz al-yahud, the "Jews' bread," i.e., our rye bread, which doesn't exist in Gaza. Since the last time we met - at the Indira Gandhi kindergarten in Beit Lahiya, the day after the teacher was killed in front of the children - his first granddaughter was born. He would prefer to forget Operation Cast Lead - how his wife sent him to buy flour, and a missile fell right by his taxi. Though we did share a laugh recalling the times when he used to fuel his Mercedes with cooking oil. At the end of the day he would get home and vomit from the smell.

The Tel Aviv skyline comes into view. "I don't recognize anything, I don't even know where I am," he says, just two blocks from the Hatikva market. He spent 10 years here, formative years as an adolescent. "I was a kid here. Everybody here loved me then. I was a good boy, a cool kid. But then the first Gulf War happened and I've been stuck in Gaza ever since. But I can't forget, I just can't."

He calls Rimon, his boss from back then. It's been 25 years since he last saw him. Great joy. "Twenty-five years is not like 25 days or even 25 months." Soon they will meet again.

At the beginning of Ha'Etzel Street, an image becomes clear. This is where the drugstore was, and this is where we used to come when we got hurt, he says. It wasn't that unusual for their bosses to beat them, but Munir-Avi was a good boy. And here is where he used to park his Peugeot 404. "Ya salam, ya salam, the Hatikva neighborhood. Right here, where it says Or Shalom, on the third floor, that's where we had a room." Merkaz Hakeves (Lamb Center ) used to be Merkaz Ha'of (Chicken Center ), where Munir plucked feathers from morning till night.

Now he musters his courage and goes over to the merchants. "You won't remember me," he says to Avraham Naim. "I used to work for Rimon on the machine." A passerby interjects: Why wasn't there enough room in Haaretz to cover the terror attack in Itamar, and why do we write about Bibi when the whole country is burning? But Munir is absorbed in his memories: This is where Ovadia's watermelon stand was. "I used to unload them for him from the truck every day. This is the store where Said worked, cleaning fish."

Not everyone remembers, not everyone is immediately happy to see him. It's the Hatikva market, and he is from Gaza. Someone took him for a Jew at first, someone else made a face, but with most people the ice was quickly broken and the memories began to surface. He pulled out his entry permit and proudly showed it to everyone, an especially touching gesture that was basically saying: I'm okay, you have nothing to fear from me, even though I come from Gaza.

Motti invited us to his tiny apartment at the back of the market. He used to beat his Arab workers, but not "Abed" - Munir. Rimon used to leave Abed to tend the cash register while he went off to watch soccer, trusting him completely. Rimon shows up eventually. He says Munir is "a good and reliable fellow. ... If all the Arabs were like him, there'd be peace already." They tell each other about their families, how many children and grandchildren have been born since then. And the inevitable Jewish question: How many children have you married off? They remember the Sheraton cigarettes they used to smoke together through the long days and nights. Motti still smokes, but only "light" cigarettes now, and Munir quit smoking in 2000. "To be honest, I really loved him," Motti admits. "Long live the Messiah" says the graffiti on the wall. That wasn't there then either. "Bye bye, Hatikva neighborhood," Munir waves, trying to hide his feelings.

His eyes light up again at the sight of the used taxi lots in south Tel Aviv. In Gaza, their cost is astronomical. If only he could take one of these with him. And if only he had listened to a friend in the market who told him he should get married then, in the 1980s, to an Israeli Arab woman, and get an Israeli ID card and stay here. If only he'd listened. The friend told him the day would come when Gaza would be completely closed off. But Munir couldn't believe it: They'll only keep the bad people out, not everyone. If only he'd listened to his friend.

At the Benny Hadayag restaurant in the Tel Aviv port, he calls the waitress "motek" (honey ). Then he asks if it's obvious that he's an Arab, and what would happen if people in the restaurant knew he was from Gaza. Passing by the caravillas of the Gush Katif evacuees in Nitzan, he is quiet, looking at the signs the settlers brought with them, signs he knew well from the years he traveled with Israeli journalists: Welcome to Rafiah Yam, Welcome to Morag. "They'll never forget Neve Dekalim and Netzarim, just like I'll never forget the Hatikva market and the Carmel market."

Across from the power station in Askhelon he stares in astonishment: Is this the station we can see even from Dir al-Balah?

Munir practically empties the supermarket shelves at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, packing up loaves of bread for everyone and sweets for the kids. As we approach the Erez Checkpoint he murmurs to himself: "Five days passed like five minutes. How warmly everyone greeted me, despite the hatred and the rockets and the siege. Did you see the way they received me? Now I'm going home and I don't know what will be. I was in Egypt once and I didn't feel anything, but Tel Aviv, a city you grew up in, a city you love - now that's something else."

And then Munir collects his bags, all his numerous packages, gets out of the car and slowly makes his way toward the first checkpoint, on his way home. He walks in silence, all his purchases threatening to slip from his hands, until he is stopped by the first guard at the checkpoint. See you, Munir. When the madness is over.