A Tale of Three Cities

A visit to the top 3 'Lonely Planet' cities in one week: Azmi Bishara's sister's restaurant in New York, a nightclub in Tangier and 'Sin City on the sea' - aka Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv beach

It was long after midnight and the place was virtually empty. Layali al-Ouns (Nights of Happiness ) is located on the boardwalk stretching along Tangier's beach, amid other nightclubs with their far-from-alluring exteriors. Beefy security men bestride the entrances, cheap neon signs flicker on the roofs. Inside, Ashraf Munir, a Moroccan singer is in the middle of a warm-up performance, warbling hits of Umm Kulthum, the legendary Egyptian diva, and others ("I never saw him and I will never forget him," "My beloved, I was born to love you" ) accompanied by a big, noisy band, with drums pounding and strings wailing, in an almost empty hall. Nights of happiness, indeed. The next song: "Palestine, return to us."

White-shirted, black-tied waiters offer a selection from the bar. Black Label flows here like water. Every bottle is adorned with a thin glowing flare that lights the waiter's way in the semi-darkness. Order a gin and tonic and you get a whole bottle of gin and a family-size bottle of tonic water. Peanuts on the side. By morning it turns out that the gin was fake, diluted or just plain bad; everyone who drinks it is in for a particularly nasty hangover.

Why did you bring me here, I asked my escorts testily, casting a bored glance over the empty club. Wait and see, I'm told. And indeed, at about 2 A.M. the place starts to fill up. Couples legal and illegal, groups of young men and women, some of the latter with cleavage lower than the Dead Sea, wearing thick makeup and dresses that threaten to burst at the seams, and sporting hairdos that must have taken hours to concoct. Love for free and love at full price. Cheers! How they spent the time until two or three o'clock in the morning is a mystery, but now they're here and the club is suddenly throbbing with life. A waiter hands the musicians paper towels with which to wipe their violins; afterward they stuff the towels under their chairs. The night is still young, after all. Tangier's version of the Genki Club.

It's very late. The star of the evening will soon do his gig. We think Tel Aviv is the city that never stops? You haven't seen anything until you've seen Layali al-Ouns. It's the "Arabian Nights" in the flesh. Once, in Cairo, I saw a performance by the queen of Egyptian belly dancers, Fifi Abdou, and she, too, didn't take the stage until the crack of dawn.

Now, at 3 A.M. in Tangier, please welcome singer Said al-Mujard, winner of the 2008 "SuperStar" competition - Lebanon's version of "American Idol." Wearing ultra-body-hugging jeans, a scarf carelessly tossed across his shoulders, Mujard seems equipped with equal measures of natural beauty and mesmerizing charisma. He glides from table to table, dancing and undulating, singing and shimmying, taking the nightclub by storm, just as he took the TV competition in Beirut two years ago. Some of the guests stuff money into his hand, and he passes it on with seeming disdain to an assistant who puts the bills in the tambourine on stage, which soon fills up with cash.

The smoke from cigars and nargiles grows thicker, some couples cavort on the dance floor, dancing with a star, others are busy pursuing love all night long. Happy hour in Tangier.

"Please welcome the people from the Gulf," Mujard announces, as yet another group of revelers enters the club, now on the verge of exploding. "Ma'aluna," he sings in their honor, a song from the Gulf. Occasionally he calls out the name of a guest, as in our aliyah to the Torah on Shabbat, and asks him to come forward. Ben Kaza (the last name means "Casablanca" in the local lingo ) is called up; his father is a singer, his mother a well-known actress, and so he's second-generation showbiz. Boom, boom; the big drums accompany him. The ceiling seems about to collapse. The next song: "The republic of my heart."

Republic or not, I'm enchanted, but dawn is breaking and it's time for bed. The festivities, I'm told, usually go on until 6 A.M.

Last week, as it happens, I visited three places - the three "hot cities of 2011," as declared by "Lonely Planet." New York is ranked first, Tangier second and Tel Aviv third. I was at an international conference of the Amadeus Institute in Tangier, at the Other Israel Film Festival in New York, and then returned to Tel Aviv. Of Tangier, sandwiched between Tel Aviv and New York on the list, "Lonely Planet" wrote: "From its extraordinary position perched on the northwestern-most tip of Africa, Tangier looks in two directions: one face towards Spain and Europe, and the other into Africa. The 'white city' announces a culture excitingly different from that of its close cousins across the water. With the recent arrival of a new city governor, the town beach now sparkles, the hustlers are off the streets and even the taxi drivers are polite. A stylish new Tangier is being created with a dynamic arts community, renovated buildings, great shopping and chic new restaurants."

Well, I didn't meet the polite taxi drivers while traveling in black limos that crisscrossed the city, with sirens wailing and motorcycle escort, carrying VIPs Saeb Erekat and Ahmed Tibi, whom I accompanied. I also skipped the great shopping places. One of them, a vast mall under construction next to my hotel, is being built by a Cyprus-based company owned by one of our own, Ofer Nimrodi; the owner of the casino in my hotel is Eli Papushado, also one of ours. The hotel itself is Saudi-owned. The new Middle East.

Shimon Peres likes to quote David Ben-Gurion, who said that you can see if an encyclopedia is worth its salt by checking an entry you know something about. Here's what "Lonely Planet" has to say about Tel Aviv, ranking one place lower than Tangier: "a modern Sin City on the sea ... Hedonism is the one religion that unites its inhabitants. There are more bars than synagogues, God is a DJ and everyone's body is a temple."

They've got it down to a T, right? So the description of Tangier is also right on.

Tangier's children are doing acrobatics on the seashore, where the view is spectacular. The city's stylized villas - designed in gorgeous Spanish and Mediterranean architectural styles, hidden behind stone walls and fronted by huge gardens - nestle on the slope of the hill. The king has a palace here, too.

Desperate African young people are sprawled on the grass next to Miami, the city's famous fish and seafood restaurant; the Bosnian foreign minister and his entourage are dining at the next table. The young people are waiting for the right moment to slip into Europe: The coast of Spain looms on the horizon; just stretch out your arm and touch it.

Unfortunately for them, the speaker at the conference at this moment is Eric Besson, the French minister of immigration, integration and national identity, the expeller of the Roma people. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, delivers what is a courageous and unusual speech for a member of the U.S. Congress, deploring the Israeli blockade of Gaza. A fellow Minnesotan, Samuel Kaplan, a wealthy Jew who is U.S. ambassador to Morocco, listens closely. Also in the audience is Golda El-Khoury, a senior UNESCO official from Lebanon - yes, that's her name. A leading Lebanese journalist, Raghida Dergham, praises my work but declares she will absolutely not shake hands with me. I am an Israeli. A retired Pakistani ambassador recalls his young love in London, an Israeli named Ruth, whom he hasn't seen in decades.

Erekat works out in the gym for two hours every morning; MK Tibi takes a picture of the exhausted, sweaty Palestinian negotiator lying on the floor. The two were among the stars of the conference. Afterward we go for a drive in a fleet of Mercedes around the city and its suburbs. From a street vendor Tibi buys gegab, a sweet red, heavenly fruit, utterly delicious. With a bag of pine nuts we walk through the labyrinthine Caves of Hercules, which overlook the point at which the Mediterranean and the Atlantic converge. Their Rosh Hanikra is a sight to behold. Erekat is here with his charming wife Naama. They have been married 29 years, but it feels like 29 days, he tells her. The song of young lovers. The couple poses for a bride-and-groom sort of shot against the backdrop of the Tangier sunset. "The deputy speaker of the Knesset is my personal photographer," Erekat says, giving Tibi a smile. Erekat takes out binoculars to look at the coast of Spain.

"Here's the chief negotiator," someone at the caves says, recognizing Erekat. A waiter at Miami recognizes Tibi; "El-Doctor" he calls him reverently. Over tea at the Sparta cafe overlooking the sea, Tibi quotes Mahmoud Darwish: "This sea is mine, / This moist air is mine, / And the quayside and all that is above it is mine." The sun sets slowly, painting the water and everything above it crimson. Something relaxed and illusory hangs in the air.

My son, the soldier, calls to wish me "Shabbat shalom."

The chauffeur tears along the well-built expressway from Tangier to Casablanca at an average speed of 170 kilometers an hour, and making the trip in a record time of three hours. A street cat wanders next to the duty-free shops at Terminal 3, named for King Mohammed V. Royal Air Maroc's flight No. 200 from Casablanca to New York departs on time. Most of the passengers to the Big Apple are Africans from all over the continent. A pilot who issues instructions to passengers in Arabic is still an unfamiliar phenomenon for an Israeli.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a group of children sit on the parquet floor and with their teacher analyze a Picasso painting of a girl in front of a mirror. They are the same age as the barefoot acrobats on the Tangier shore. "This is not a realistic picture," the art teacher explains.

Two amazing exhibitions are on view at the city's International Center of Photography: one on the revolution in Cuba, and the other consisting of a collection of 4,500 negatives of Spanish Civil War photos taken by Robert Capa and others, which were discovered in Mexico. The photos of Che Guevara's body in the first exhibition are hard to look at.

The Other Israel Film Festival is screening episodes from Rani Bleier's splendid new television series "Adama." Mohammed Bakri gives a standout performance in it as the father of a Moroccan Jewish family in a southern Israeli village, with Amos Lavie, who died this month, at his side. On another evening of the festival, Mira Awad sings in English and in Arabic. Since the lynching of the two Israeli reservist soldiers in Ramallah, she says, she no longer calls herself a Palestinian, but "a woman who wants to live" - a statement that draws applause from the Israelis and Jews in the audience.

Yellow autumn leaves blanket Central Park. Christmas decorations have begun to appear. At Princeton University, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, is preparing for the ceremony; his wife Patricia has already bought a dress. He says he did not know he has so many friends in Israel until they called to congratulate him. He says he is still upset about our situation.

Prof. Rashid Khalidi is also pessimistic. Over breakfast at Cafe Le Monde, he admits he did not have too many expectations of Barack Obama, a close friend.

Tanoreen, a restaurant on Third Avenue in Brooklyn, is packed. The proprietors - Rawia Bishara, sister of former MK Azmi Bishara, and her daughter, Jumana - cook Palestinian food such as I have never eaten. Over Kefraya, a fine Lebanese arak, together with actor Clara Khoury and her fiance Sean, who brought me to this marvelous restaurant, we partake of raw mutton, maluhiya, makloubeh, knafeh and other delicacies.

Soon I have to catch the flight to Tel Aviv, No. 3 on the "Lonely Planet" list.