Amos Ben Israel poses for a photo at the Olamot convention, Tel Aviv, April 23, 2019. Tomer Appelbaum

At Tel Aviv Sci-fi and Fantasy Conference, the Offbeat Is the Norm

Once a hub for social outcasts, annual convention has morphed into colorful, unapologetic celebration. Even those who used to mock the geeks joined the party

At the entrance to Ironi Alef High School in Tel Aviv, people attending the Olamot Convention for Science Fiction and Fantasy are greeted by Moaning Myrtle, one of the ghosts in the Harry Potter books. She wears a school uniform, sporting a wig with two braids, her face painted a pale white. On other days, this is Amos Ben Israel, a 39-year-old Java programmer, but even with makeup on and dressed as a schoolgirl, he doesn’t stick out.

Several thousands of the sci-fi and fantasy-loving geek community have taken over the high school for two days, easily outshining Purim or Halloween while redefining societal norms.

In the early 2000s, they would find each other on online forums or in remote corners of Tel Aviv shopping malls. Over the years, the information revolution and social media have made sci-fi and fantasy lovers more visible. 

Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Game of Thrones have invaded the mainstream, and the bizarre computer people of the 90s have been upgraded into well-established and astonishingly ordinary high-tech workers in 2019. It seems that it has never been more comfortable being a geek.

Tomer Appelbaum

The prevailing jargon of this community makes it an autonomous entity, with a langauage, symbols and norms of its own. Terms derived from computer games and J. R. R. Tolkien’s books play a key role in conversations between conference attendees, but one of them clarifies: “Anyone wanting to understand finds a way. They love it.” 

“People at work know I’m a Tolkien fan. I don’t hide it,” sayd Ben Israel, manning a stand put up by the Israeli community of Tolkien fans, where he met his wife-to-be. He says the community includes people from all walks of life. “There are religious people, there are secular ones. There’s youth. I know one Arab woman, but there are fewer of them. We’d be happy if they came.”

Stepping further into the school-turned-fantasy-land reveals a wide range of costumes and makeup, and colorful, gender-bending people walk around in small groups, like a computer game come to life.

Tomer Appelbaum

'A test of trust between me and my parents'

With more people joining this community, which is now much more visible on social media, attendees say that the age of first-time participants is constantly dropping. The variety in ages, with some participants in their early teens, requires special attention by organizers, who appointed people in charge of addressing any complaints of harassment or sexual assault and ensuring the conention’s space remains safe for all.

Just as the eye was adjusting to the colorful mix, a totally pink woman appears, sporting a set of horns. She is 15-year-old Lior from Zichron Yaakov, who was first introduced into the world of cosplay (costume play) when she was 12. She makes sure to stay in the shade so that the springtime sun does not ruin the pink makeup covering her body.

“These conferences have become a test of trust between me and my parents,” she says. “They require many trips to Tel Aviv, but the older I get they trust me more. They love it, since they see how happy I am with it. A few times a year I can wear the most unconventional items I have in my closet.” 

"Sometimes it’s things I’ve invested a lot of time in – I had a cosplay I worked on for three months,” Lior adds.

“You become something you’re not, or highlight one aspect of yourself,” says 36-year-old Amit, one of two men with silver hair and big swords, who dressed up as the character of Dante in the video game Devil May Cry.

However, Liat Shahar-Kashtan, the head of Israel Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, who also heads the team responsible for the prevention of sexual harassment at the conference, believes that the community is based on connections between people, not escapism.

“We need to be here for young people and people who can’t find themselves in the real world, letting them find a home here,” she says. “People come here to be themselves, with no one looking at them funny.  They are accepted here.” That is why there is so much sexual and gender diversity in the community, she says.

Later in the evening there are lectures and discussion panels on sci-fi-related topics. “We’ve come a long way,” Shahar-Kashtan proudly says. “Journalists used to come and laugh at us. Now they come to talk to us.”

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