Artist in a Cage

More than anything else, Rafram Hadad told me, he misses the muezzin, whose five daily calls to prayer were the only things that gave him a sense of time and kept him sane during his five months of imprisonment in Libya.

More than anything else, Rafram Hadad told me, he misses the muezzin, whose five daily calls to prayer were the only things that gave him a sense of time and kept him sane during his five months of imprisonment in Libya. He spoke briefly about the physical pain he suffered from torture, but added that he is still not allowed to go into details because he promised his rescuers - who include Israel's and other nation's presidents, prime ministers and top political personalities, along with junior diplomats who endangered themselves for his sake - that he would remain silent. At least for a while.

Rafram also spoke with pain about the Israeli media, which ambushed him as he was heading to see his father for the first time following his release. A few days earlier, Rafram's grandmother had passed away and his father was still mourning for her, and had not come to greet him at the airport. Someone found out, and the cameramen swooped down on him as he was heading to the house of mourning.

It's hard to believe that anyone in this utilitarian place called Israel would bother to interpret with the appropriate delicacy what led to the arrest and imprisonment of Rafram in Libya. But perhaps you could try: First and foremost, he is a poet of colors and feelings - an installation artist and documentary photographer. As such, and on behalf of an organization of Libyan immigrants, he took upon himself the task of traveling to Libya and documenting Jewish sites there. A dangerous mission, but not an idiotic one, because Rafram holds a Tunisian passport and already had traveled in places where most Israelis would not tread.

I met him several years ago, at my home; he told me about some of his unusual plans. At the time he was hankering to create works featuring collective, public meals in urban spaces. He chose Chen Boulevard in Tel Aviv and the plaza opposite the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. I haven't always quite understood the point of Rafram's installations, but there was something admirable in the way he dared to remind us that it's not worthy of being called art if it does not "injure" the public space, is not embarrassing and is not bizarre.

Rafram is a living reminder of Franz Kafka's story "A Hunger Artist" - that masterpiece about an artist whose work involves displaying himself in a cage and starving himself to death, while an audience watches first with curiosity and then loses interest. In a similar way, Rafram's life as an artist is life on the brink of danger.

We originally met in order to share stories about Cairo, where he wanted to spend some time. I gave him phone numbers of people I met there, and he went and found Egyptian artists, who later told him what a special experience meeting him had been. They opened their hearts to him because he introduced himself as a Tunisian and a Jew, and not as an Israeli, which made things easier for them. An outsider would not understand the extent to which boundaries and identities are part of the essence of art.

The last time we met was in the middle of the night, in the north, during the Second Lebanon War. Katyushas were flying and the forest between Kiryat Shmona and Metula was burning. And I was heading in my old Ford Fiesta toward a kibbutz in the Galilee panhandle where a diaper factory was being bombed. And who was standing by the side of the road and looking for a ride? Rafram, with a Swedish photographer, off to do a project which they explained as we drove.

So I was not at all surprised when I learned this week that Rafram had been arrested in Libya, and then released. Of course, you could relate cynically to the embarrassing scene of this unconventional artist having his picture taken with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who depicted himself as Rafram's savior - and, actually, not without justification.

The superficial sort of conclusion that can be drawn from the whole affair is that there is no place like home, and Israel does not abandon its citizens. And taking risks in foreign places is worthwhile only if you're on "Survivor." In that case, the stars return home and are greeted like royalty.

Rafram Hadad, the hero of his own personal reality show - one far more daring than any "Survivor" and with a far deeper human and Jewish message - was greeted here like a strange animal in a cage, a kind of cross between a koala bear and a monkey. Let's throw him a banana and see whether he's one or the other.