Opinion

Unlike in Israel, Politics in America Don't Dictate My Every Move

But weather does.

Illustration: Sayed Kashua watches a rainy TV weather report.
Amos Biderman

It’s getting really tiring, this whole American story of the president versus the media. Soon both sides will have to find a new story to amuse the masses. Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if I could manage without being a news consumer – anyway, why should I care about Americans’ news? Here I don’t even have the illusion of wielding influence by casting a ballot every four years. As of now, the fear is locked into the TV screen and doesn’t touch my private life directly. Hamsa, hamsa – knock on wood, as they say here. Best not to talk of the devil, especially a devil I don’t know.

Politics here doesn’t dictate my agenda, it’s not part of my daily routine. In Jerusalem, being a Palestinian Arab was integral to my consciousness. I needed to be aware of being an Arab when I drove the kids to school, when I went to work, when choosing the words in my writing and every time I walked on the street. Politics in Israel dictated how much caution needed to be taken in certain contexts, such as with respect to place of residence, the children’s education system, safe places to hang out, use of language and how you greet the neighbors.

Possibly it’s the welcome feeling of non-belonging and the blessed neutralization of national sentiments for me here that’s preventing me from taking fright at every presidential tweet and every presidential order against Muslims. As a guest, I am more concerned about the effect of these moves on the Middle East than on domestic politics here. But we must beware of complacency, learn from history and bear in mind the motto inscribed on the paranoid’s banner: “Always be prepared.”

Still, until I have proof to the contrary, I’m a lot more worried about the local weather than about the choice of a treasury secretary and an attorney general. Blizzards have replaced the occupation, tornadoes the settlements and hail the racial laws. In the meantime, the only rising and falling sirens heard here are the tornado alarms. But even though it’s been two and a half years, and the sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of every month, anxiety still seizes me and I look for escape routes even during a drill.

This winter was particularly scary. It’s been one of the warmest ever in the Midwest, with tornado alerts in March for the first time in decades. If a serious storm is building, people get warnings on their mobiles. That happened last week, when there was a tornado alert in town and the residents were urged to be vigilant from the afternoon until midnight. “But it’s hot and pleasant outside,” my wife said. Somehow, of all the residents of Illinois, she’s the only one who hadn’t heard about the approaching storm. “Yes,” I replied, “true, but here, you know, everything changes in a flash. It’s not like in Israel. This is America.”

That evening I watched the Weather Channel. I followed storm hunters who documented a tornado that ripped through northwestern Illinois, destroyed a residential neighborhood and killed two people.

“At night,” the weatherpeople said over-enthusiastically, “it will be hard to see the storm approaching,” and urged everyone to exercise caution.

I tried to stay awake until midnight, until the danger had passed. But then a new alert came in: The window of opportunity for a tornado to develop would last until 4 A.M. In the meantime, all was calm outside, there was no sign of 50-mph. winds or of predicted hail the size of golf balls. Tired as I was, I decided to make myself a cup of coffee and stay awake. With the windows shut, we probably wouldn’t hear the siren, and I didn’t want to rely on the beeps that the government sends to mobile phones.

Just before 1 A.M., the wind started to pick up. The Weather Channel showed satellite images that painted the town in orange, one level below the highest danger, red. I turned on the lights in the basement, arranged two blankets and two bottles of water, and brought the children’s coats down there, so they would be warm after the electricity went off. I made sure the doors to the kids’ rooms were wide open and for the millionth time I went over the emergency plan I’d prepared.

First I’ll wake up my wife, to help me with the children. I will give her clear orders: “To the basement, go, go, go.” Then I’ll carry the little one on my shoulder and take his blanket with us. I’ll shake the older ones hard, especially my daughter, who’s hard to wake up. I’ll hustle them out but will at the same time calm them in a caressing but authoritative voice: “Everything is alright, quick, quick, quick, don’t worry, everything is alright, into the basement.”

Around 2 A.M., the promised hail began to pound on the windows. I made the rounds of the bedrooms quietly, to ensure that the curtains would block the slivers of glass should the storm get worse, and then I went back downstairs. The TV was on the Weather Channel, the alarm hadn’t sounded yet, and there was only an alert. “Flashlights,” I said aloud, suddenly remembering. I grabbed two of them and a packet of batteries from the kitchen cupboard and went down to the fully lit basement. “Everything is ready,” I said to myself, when suddenly I heard rapid steps on the basement stairs.

“Aren’t you ashamed?” my wife shouted at me sleepily.

“What happened?”

“You run down here alone and leave us to face the tornado?”

“No, there’s no tornado yet, I was just getting the basement ready.”

“Never mind that you don’t wake me up, I wouldn’t expect that from you, but you leave your children upstairs?”

“No. What? No It’s just hail, still an alert.”

“All that noise and it’s not a tornado?”

“No.”

“Fine,” she said, before turning and walking back upstairs. “I’m going back to sleep.”

The hail kept beating down and the wind whistled powerfully through the chimney opening. Toward 4 A.M., the wind died down. No tornado struck the town. I was amazed at my wife for thinking I’d abandoned them and escaped the storm on my own.

“What was that all about?” I asked her in the morning, hurt. She insisted she had no idea what I was talking about.

“What storm?” she said. “Look how quiet it is outside.”