“It comes in waves,” a friend said to me this week when I confessed to her after a few beers and a few shots of strong, transparent alcohol that I figured was tequila but turned out to be sotol. “Sometimes it hits you even after 10 years,” said my friend, who’s of Iranian origin and is very familiar with the experience of years of wandering. Still, it’s an unpleasant feeling to admit that for the past few weeks, I haven’t been afflicted by longing.
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Along with the sense of loss, there has been something comforting in the pure sadness that has become routine over the past two years. Almost romantic, really – to mourn for your home in a distant land until it seems that the meaning of homeland is understood only in exile. Yet for the past few weeks, my heart has not been torn, and has accepted the fact that it is in the West.
This week, as I returned to my town from Chicago, I discovered that pulsating within me was the feeling of “I’ll soon be home,” as I passed Rantoul, Illinois, which is about 20 minutes from my house. It was the same familiar feeling of warmth I used to get when I passed Sha’ar Hagai on the way back to Jerusalem, and the identical feeling that accompanied me in childhood when I passed Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, which always conveyed the message that home was near.
What is Rantoul, Illinois to me, I berated myself aloud as I drove, conjuring up the transience of exile and trying to remember the trauma of leaving that had rocked my world just two years ago.
It was a feeling of guilt for something like desertion, even though I was never a soldier in any army. There you go, those who harbor Zionist feelings will say: Two years away from Jerusalem and the Palestinian’s right hand has forgotten its cunning. We knew it, my Arab friends are liable to say, their assumption now proved: This is what happens when you are brazen enough to mix up racial identities for a moment.
“Another beer?” asked the veteran Iranian historian who was also with us at the bar, and who this month published a powerful collection of stories based on his memories from prison. “Yes, a beer,” I told him, conjuring up the young revolutionary he’d once been, utterly devoted to Marxist ideology.
“The homeland betrayed him,” the Norwegian philosopher observed as the historian launched into a song in Farsi.
“Do you know a homeland that doesn’t?” I asked, and regretted the question, because we were here to say goodbye to a Peruvian friend who is moving to the University of Pittsburgh after 30 years in our town, which has become home for her – “and thanks to you, will always be home,” as she said tearfully during the pre-dinner remarks.
“You know,” the philosopher continued, “I thought I was over ‘national’ feelings, until that terrorist attack five years ago. Then I discovered that I was mourning. Don’t get me wrong,” she added, “when there’s an attack in Istanbul, and when I see the bodies of Syrian children, I feel very sad, even broken up – but when it happened in Norway, I experienced prolonged grief.”
“So it’s all about death and its rituals?” the Turkish economist conjectured.
“And persecution,” I said, without being completely sure what I meant.
“So you long for persecution?” the Indian lecturer asked, laughing. “Don’t worry, it will soon come here. Did you hear what Cuomo said yesterday? You’d better be careful – the governor declared that anyone who boycotts Israel will be boycotted by the state of New York.”
Obviously I feel longing, but it’s become longing for people, for friends and family. When I think about Israel, I discover that it’s mostly childhood memories that come to me.
“Cuomo wouldn’t have said that if Muhammad Ali were still alive,” I said, and sang like we did as kids in Tira. “Ya, ya, ya, Muhammad Ali Kali, and if you like him you’ll get a thousand pounds free.”
“Clay,” the only American-born person in the group corrected me. “Not Kali. Clay, Muhammad Ali Clay.”
I wonder: Did he fast, Muhammad Ali? It’s Ramadan, and there’s always a bad feeling when you go out and drink during the holy month. But it’s already nighttime, so eating is allowed, at least. My older children insist on fasting – they discovered in America that it’s part of their self-definition. It doesn’t make sense to them or their friends to say that they are Muslims when they are not fasting – so they fast. We left them alone at home, they’re already old enough to look after their little brother. They’ll eat alone; they have a phone app that tells them when the fast ends.
I fasted, too, when I was in junior high. I used to wait outside in the evening with my brothers for the lights of the minaret to come on, signaling that the muezzin’s call announcing the conclusion of the fast was imminent. “Wadan ya wadan,” we chanted to urge the muezzin on, hoping he would announce that eating was allowed.
What childhood memories will my children have from Ramadan in America? No muezzin, no rituals, no children’s songs. And why in the world do all these rituals bug me? I have to leave the children be, they will invent their own childhood memories. And anyway, what good ever came from the childhood memories of Tira? Now I’m here, even if temporarily, feeling guilty for being happy, surrounded by friends from around the world. This would never happen in Israel, I thought as I looked around at my new life.
The anthropologist said something about voting against the academic boycott of Israel. She asked for my opinion, and I told her I didn’t have one. “On the one hand, there’s Israel, the occupation and the Palestinians,” she said. “And on the other hand, I know Israeli anthropologists who are so enlightened and are thoroughly against all the politics there.”
Yes, I admitted, I too know some wonderful academics from Israel, and then asked, “But do you know what the proportion of Arabs in Israeli academia is?”
“No, what is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted, and for some reason I remembered the oh-so-true comment of a literature lecturer from Haifa: “You will never be part of this.” I remember being very offended then, 15 years ago. How did he have the effrontery to say that? After all, the revolution was looming, no more division into Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, not in literature and not in geography.
I believed then with all my heart that it would soon be over, that in just a bit the lights would come on to signal the end of the fast.