Twilight Zone / Tel Aviv Nights

We agreed to meet at 10 P.M. She said that Tuesday wasn't much of a night and 10 was too early. Nevertheless, we agreed to meet at 10. Minerva is a bar for "Woman and man, straights, lesbians, homos, cross-genders, multisexuals and all the rest," as declared on the entryway to the grayish building on Lilienblum Street, where the black market dollar dealers stood in my childhood. Those panderers of forbidden currency, always with a mouth full of gold teeth, short of stature and wearing a cap, would disappear with clients behind the buildings in what looked to me like the darkest scene in Tel Aviv. In fact, at that time, they didn't say "scene."

We returned home at 4 A.M. Two bars and a sado-maso club, a night flight on the scene, for beginners.

We met again two days later. Thursday, she said, Thursday was really hot. Not like Friday, but also good. At 2:30 A.M., the owner of Haoman 17, the latest thing in town, shouted into my ear in the midst of all the noise: "Why did you come so early? Wait an hour or two and you'll see what goes on here." This was at a time when about 1,500 young people were already whooping it up on the huge dance floor at our feet.

Two nights, six night spots - a drop in the ocean of the endless entertainment of the big city, where the nights are the most tempestuous in the world. There is no other place like this: The city that during the daytime hours seems provincial, ugly and antsy, not particularly fascinating, changes entirely when night falls. This is not a city that never stops. It does stop, but in the daytime hours. At a time when our bodies are sprawled in front of the Channel 1 late night news show, "From Today to Tomorrow," the real scene, which is hidden from the eye, begins.

Niche versus trendy

She ordered a vodka cranberry for starters. When she quickly finished the first glass, the barmanit (Hebrew: barman with a feminine ending) served her another glass of the sweetish red liquid: They know her and her tastes here. The barmanit was wearing only a bra and trousers, and until just recently she had been a lesbian. Now she is straight, she said, serving the second vodka cranberry. She is 21.

Aviya Ben David was kind enough to be my tour guide. She is a local diva, a columnist on night life for the local weekly Tel Aviv, a poet, the proprietor of an alternative publishing house called Sitra Ahra (Dark Side), the publisher of an art publication called 30, the house model for fashion designer Dorin Frankfurt and the mother of two. Now she is writing a novel about vampires - she has already met with people who think they are vampires, and has visited a bar in London where blood is on the drinks menu. She describes her apartment in Tel Aviv as a "shrine to Oscar Wilde," her literary hero. She grew up in the Neveh Sharett neighborhood of Tel Aviv, was educated at the ultra-Orthodox Bais Yaakov school for girls, is 31, is tastefully tattooed, and has a past of many wild nights and the considerable ability to describe them. We followed her like blind men in the dark. Her language, the language of the night, also required quite a bit of glossing and explanation. Jungle? Ketamine? MDMA? Gothic?

A handful of men and women sit around the dim bar at Minerva - it's so early - a group of heterosexuals, among them one man wearing a crocheted skullcap. "This is a homo-lesbian bar where every night there is a different concept," said Ben David, using the word "concept" in English, but with the stress on the second syllable. "Today the concept is more in the direction of electro. There are institutions in this city that have already been around for a decade. For example, the Minzar (accent on the first syllable, a kind of pun on the Hebrew word for "monastery" and the words for "sex" and "strange"), with a very respectable regular clientele of artists, writers, poets, and it still isn't full every night. But most of the places that are born with a big splash are too trendy and very quickly bring in the wrong clientele. What's the wrong clientele? Periphery. Not to disparage, but this is a problematic clientele. The clientele of trendim is a very unfaithful clientele that migrates from place to place. The moment the next thing opens - they're there. They are looking for where they can see Yael Bar Zohar or Miri Bohadana, they want to feel that they are dancing in the same square and breathing the same air as they are, and when they move on, the place is no longer an item. The TLV, for example, is no longer an item. Niche places survive longer. The moment you've got a niche - you hang on.

"Pick places are a welcome thing, but you leave there exactly the way you came in. Alone. There's a sentence that we women like to quote: `There's no such thing as a man who isn't handsome; there's just too little vodka-Red Bull,' but usually it ends alone. There are all kinds of people who move around in this scene: There are the owners of the places, among whom there is a hierarchy, club owners, PR people, those who think they are trendsetters; there are those who go out looking for a random quickie, there are those who have a full life, and there are the clubbers, who are the lowest of the low. Someone who moves along from party to party, several parties a night, including mornings, a party, an after and the after-after. Are they lonely? I couldn't tell you. I see a lot of misery in these places. Just yesterday I called an ambulance for a girl I saw in the street, and I really felt sorry for her.

"A good party is measured by its drugs. Every time frame has its own drug and every club has its own drug. It is a known thing that at certain parties certain dealers are around, and then most of the people at the party are using the same thing. Then there's a vibe, the energy of the same thing, and the effect is very strong. Each scene has its own drug: There is retro for old drugs, and there are new drugs. At Underground there are always cheap drugs, liqvid acid, GH, Ketamine, which is an anesthetic for horses, and, of course, they smoke a lot in between. People aren't put off. Whatever comes around, goes around. Trips, trips. If someone has concocted something and brings a liter-and-a-half bottle of something dubious, everyone will drink.

"At more exclusive bars they go more for the coke. Those who are nearer to the bar have taken coke, and those who are further away have taken Ecstasy. You can tell by the faces and the clustering. Ecstasy is something massive on the dance floor; anyone near the bar is on coke. If you're on the scene you get a lot of offers during the evening. `Do you want a line, do you want this?' There are the little flasks of MDMA, one drop on your hand and you lick it. It's Ecstasy without the speed. It gives a feeling of exaggerated affection for the surroundings and there are people who are sexually aroused by it. It's a very social drug. Liqvid is more hallucinations, it puts you into other dimensions. Not everyone is built to deal with this, it's for a very special genre of people. You need a lot of control for this. It can take you to the clouds, and it can take you to hell. I always recommend a Vaban in your purse, a tranquilizer. Isn't that so, Avihai?"

Avihai, a poet and computer student at Tel Aviv University, is the DJ this evening at Minerva. We went on to talk to Ben David about - how could it be otherwise? - sex. "Most of the people I go around with are in a relationship, but this is a very fluid relationship. It's not, like, such a conservative and refined thing. You get a little drunk - and you go to the toilets with someone. It's okay. Tomorrow you forget. What do you need a relationship for? You can get everything so much more cheaply. You have a job, a life, your world is full. What do you need? Sex? You have sex. Closeness? You have friends and family for that. Love? So you have a relationship for two weeks. The concepts of forever have got blurred. Until not too long ago you didn't have a relationship and you didn't feel deprived of anything. You can love someone for one night. Anyone who aspires to a relationship has a problem. I see amazing things: People don't exchange a word, and in two minutes they're screwing on the bar. I have a daughter who was born from an encounter like that. She's 3 years old. I have another daughter who was born as the result of a relationship. One daughter is a club daughter, and one daughter is a relationship daughter. Nowadays they're building the toilets so that they'll be more convenient. They show consideration for the clients. All that's lacking is moist wipes. There are already mirrors and televisions, if the sex is boring."

The music picks up. Electro mixes with an '80s sound. Ben David said she loves DJs who play in multisexual circumstances and also that jungle goes well with techno. She gets more beautiful, it seems to me, at night.

Walking on the edge

Hit / strike with all your might / tear my flesh / show no mercy / blur identifying signs / beat my head on the walls of the room / ruin / roll me down the steps / kick hard / my body sprawled on the ground / silent / motionless. (Aviya Ben David, "Love, Denunciation and Soft Drugs")

We went to see whether Shunya's was open, but it wasn't. Iron shutters drawn. Tuesday isn't a big night. Shunya's is a Russian club located in a garage in the folds of the metropolis. Next to the entrance to a kosher dairy restaurant on Old Jaffa, we went down the stone steps to the cellars of The Dungeon, the city's S and M club. "Cool music," whispers Ben David, near the gynecologist's chair standing in the middle of the dance floor. The chair is still orphaned, as are the cages, the whips, the clips, the needles, the burning candles and the other props. It's only midnight, the night is still young and tonight there will be a closed evening here for the "community."

Television sets are showing particularly stylized porn films. Amos Levy served for 20 years in the career army, in Military Intelligence and in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit. Now, in civilian life, he is the owner of this club: "The idea is to walk on the edge. The really difficult things are what goes on in people's heads. What is beautiful about this place is that there aren't any weirdos here. Here a man can wear a woman's clothing and look normal." We are in the mingling phase, and the place looks like a respectable cocktail party, only in dim light. Hardly anything hints at what will happen in a little while.

People of all ages, sexes, social classes and maybe also religious streams - two bearded men in T-shirts and jeans are careful to hide their curled side-locks behind their ears - everyone is moving around, slightly bored. Apart from us, the only ones who look embarrassed are the two ultra-Orthodox fellows in disguise. A man dressed as a woman, wearing a cheap wig and a tight skirt, and a man with a black dog collar around his neck break the routine atmosphere. Black is the color, and S and M is the thing. The music: Gothic-electronic, in the language of Ben David, the guide. A young man hands out flyers for the "Cage Site" on the Internet, "the home site that answers to the community's needs."

An architect, a woman of 31: "This is my thing. I'm a sub. There's the dom and there's the sub and there's the slave, which is the same thing. I'm a masochist, so the whole thing works out well for me. On Thursdays there are sessionim. Do you know what a session is? It includes whips and wax. Why have I come today? Because my dom is coming. I have a regular dom." A Tarzanish young man approaches, embraces her warmly and separates us forever from his sub.

"The place has a female orientation," said proprietor Levy. "It gives a lot of respect to women. Here, women mostly beat men. There are enough men beating women in our everyday life. But a woman beating a man - there's something beautiful in that."

At touching distance from us, a man strips stark naked and presses up against the stone wall. A woman dressed in black lashes him with a multithonged whip, and a group of people sit around in a circle watching silently. Between one lash and the next, there are also insults. The man's pleasure is growing, to judge by the changes in his body. In another corner, a man is lying on the floor and a portly woman is pleasuring him with her high-heeled shoes. There are no inhibitions here; everyone sees everything. The woman who is hitting the man stops suddenly: "You can get dressed now." Some unclear rift has developed between them. Levy is proud that everything here is done consensually. The music turns into dark-electro, the famous Rammstein band from Germany. Scores of people are scattered in the various spaces, each going about his or her business: In one corner stands quite an elderly man, bald and naked as the day he was born, his whole body covered in clips. Each additional clip that the woman applies to his flesh brings a luxuriant grimace of pleasure to his wrinkled face. In another corner stands a group of men whipping a particularly fat woman.

"Hello. Pleased to meet you. My name is Zero, and I'm the house slave." In boxer shorts, shoes and socks, with lash marks on his back, pulling a wheeled carry-on suitcase with his clothes and props in it like a traveling salesman, smiling and likable, he is a broker during the day. This is the house slave. The grotesquerie speaks: "What is a house slave? In every S and M club there's the institution of the house slave. He takes care of the logistics and the safety. Is this your first time here? If there's any danger I stop it. There are situations with dangerous momentum. Irreversible health risks. Suppose they hang someone upside down, then after a certain amount of time I stop it. Everything that looks risky to me - I have the authority to stop it. There are very complex sessions with respect to the props, and I have to supervise. Special knots, stranglings that go in the direction of the extreme, or an element of boiling wax. If you pour it too close it can be hazardous. This is irreversible damage.

"Let's say that we've had three periods. There was the period before the Internet, which I call the desert generation. Everything was very discreet, swept under the carpet, and everyone hid. Then came the Internet, and some people got to know each other and there were forums, and then came the club and there was a big revolution. What people had been hiding for years, the club came along and opened for everyone. We have performances that are the starter that motivates lots of people to do things in the corners of the club in a spontaneous and intimate way. Let's say a few more things: I don't know what your orientation is. Don't get alarmed. You've happened on an extreme evening. It's just about sex." Du hasst mich, sings the Gothic-electronic singer from Germany - "You hate me" - as the woman removes the clips, one by one, from the elderly man's body. Aren't you going to stay for the house slave's performance?

More joints than people

"There are no words from this night / only intense movement / from space to space and from illumination to illumination / from monotony to faded joy / from the threshold of my home / to the threshold of despair (Aviya Ben David, ibid.])

"Your timing is off. There was a huge group of friends here and it was fine." A stylish bar with mirrors in the background, drum and bass on the speakers. The DJ, Ofir Spack, a book distributor in a family business during the day, is sorry that we've come late to Shesek, the bar where he was spinning this evening. Now there are more joints here than people and the pungent smell wafts through the space. A DJ who was brought especially from France is spinning at Wax, a mega-club near The Dome, which is even more of a mega-club, at the edge of the old central bus station. The French Ambassador to Israel, Gerard Araud, one of the more celebrated and convivial foreign ambassadors here, sportily dressed, honors the occasion.

"Abraxas for the hags, Velvet for the Falashmuras, that is the Hubats, that is Holon and Bat Yam." The night guide catalogs the clubs on our way. There is a sea of people at the entrance to the Dome, hundreds of young people taking bottles of alcohol out of the trunks of their cars and glugging cheaply, before they go inside, to glug expensively. For a moment it seems as though we are in Park Hayarkon on Independence Day.

In the cellar of Cafe Barzilai, a smallish, quality club, the Bikinis are appearing, with the wonderful singer Karni Postal, and the place is overflowing. Until her appearance, the group is performing Yaffa Yarkoni and Ilanit as a warm-up. Yarkoni's "All the doves will fly to the dawn, all the gulls will return to the sea," and Ilanit's no less forgotten "Ringo Lee" on the Yonim's new disc. Ben David said the toilets here are spacious, "just right for groups." Avi Mugrabi, a filmmaker and a Ta'ayush activist, told me the history of the sheep poisonings at the village of Tuana in the southern Hebron hills, which were done by the Jewish settlers. Shai Pollack, from Anarchists Against the Fence, said that yesterday they had played night basketball in Bil'in, in order to drive the army crazy. His brother, Yonatan, was wounded by Israel Defense Forces gunfire the next day.

Abrabanel Street, also in the southern part of the city, is closed to vehicular traffic by iron barricades and guards, like the street where the prime minister lives in Jerusalem. Only people who have clout and a Mercedes are allowed through. Haoman 17. The latest thing. The biggest and most fashionable club in the city, until the next place opens. A storm trooper wordlessly blocks my way in with an iron chain. In my innocence I thought that only in the territories are there barricades and a violent attitude like this. The way to the ticket window goes through a series of iron chains and thugs, beside them the PR people who determine fates. There is a frightening violence inherent in this scene. Anyone who isn't on the lists doesn't get in. Just like at the Hawara roadblocks, cores of despairing young people gaze with pleading expressions at the storm troopers and the PR people. Most of them will remain outside tonight.

Inside, the earth shakes. Every muscle of the body vibrates from the force of the music, in the head, in the belly, in the back and in the legs - everything trembles. Thousands of partyers writhe and caper on the enormous, stylish dance floor, at the foot of the DJ station, which is raised above the crowd, like the speaker's podium in the Knesset. A wealth of spotlights does wonders, rising and falling like at an amusement park, and the noise is unbearable.

Reuven Lublin, one of the owners of the place, with particular friendliness and an 18-month sentence for tax offenses hanging over his head, shouts complete sentences into my ear for a whole hour, but I don't catch a single word. I nod from time to time, pretending to hear. How many times can a person shout "What?!" I think he said he very much admires my work in the territories, but in the midst of all that noise I am not sure that he didn't say the opposite.