Going Nowhere

The highways were empty Tuesday afternoon when the siren snuck up with a dull roar, like a sleeping monster that has suddenly awoke to the smell of its prey. Michael came down to the entrance of the building in order to welcome me. Recently someone came to visit, and he was also caught by the siren at the entrance. The guest threw himself into a niche at the side of the road. Upstairs in the apartment they started to worry about him. It turned out he had suffered a panic attack. Now, to be on the safe side, Michael makes sure to accompany his guest to the building entrance.

He is not worried for himself. No, he is not leaving Haifa. He doesn't go down to the bomb shelter. The idea never occurred to him. "The fact that I haven't left is not a statement," he says. "I understand those who have left. But I can't leave the house. This is my place. It's not that I'm especially brave, but by nature I confront danger. Everyone has his own response mechanisms built up over his life."

He is at home, that's the main thing, but life is being interrupted. He has difficulty working on his writing. The same emotional mechanism that helps him divorce himself from the immediate situation has been undermined, and "awareness surrenders to the violent reality," as he puts it. Michael had begun to write a novel about Saddam Hussein's Iraq when the barrages of Katyushas began falling on the city. "When sirens begin to wail, you run to see where the rocket has fallen. You know every missile strike is a house destroyed, flesh seared, worry. Friends and acquaintances call. It's not a suitable time for writing."

Does he feel threatened? He realizes that the walls cannot protect, and something basic is disrupted in one's personal sense of security. "Look at the house. It's open to danger. Only two walls, and everything is glass. You can clearly hear the rockets landing. We saw some of them. We watched a house burning. When your house is trembling, the trembling passes through your body and reaches your brain."

But there is also an opposite acclimation mechanism, he says. "When there's a siren, I don't even think of getting up, changing position, keeping away from the window. You get used to it, you become hardened, like soldiers in battle. After all, we are now the front."

Michael believes that as a nation we have over time developed a similar mentality. "We think that it's possible to live a normal life in the shadow of war, or wars, to be more precise, because there are wars here in eight-year cycles. It's denial. I am not a person who likes to deceive myself, and there is something false in our sense of a stable home. The entire area in which we live, the Middle East, is unstable. That's nothing new. For 2,000 years there has been destruction and wars here. It's not related only to the Jewish-Arab conflict, which is actually marginal.

"I'm opposed to this acclimation. In my writing I want to create awareness of the fact that it is not normal to live this way. As opposed to those who think that a Jew can live only in the State of Israel, I actually believe he can live much better in other countries." He is apparently referring to a debate that author A.B. Yehoshua aroused a few weeks ago, when he leveled criticism at American Jewry.

Haifa, therefore, seems to Michael like an island of sanity in the sea of madness of the Middle East. "This is a unique city, and I find consolation in it. There is something stable about it - in its atmosphere, in the houses more modest than the stone houses of Jerusalem, in the quiet compared to noisy and crowded Tel Aviv." Michael is admired by many residents of Arab countries and has warm relations with Arab residents of the city. "There is a certain measure of coexistence here between Arabs and Jews," he says. And the same is true of relations between the religious and secular communities, and between veteran Israelis and new immigrants. "When on Shabbat I drive through the Hadar neighborhood, which has ultra-Orthodox residents, and particularly on Geula Street, which traverses it, they don't throw stones at me, they nod to thank me for stopping at a pedestrian crossing."

Haifa stars in several of Michael's novels, foremost among them "A Trumpet in the Wadi" (1987) and "Refuge (1977) - but so does Baghdad, his native city. He has often said he loves both cities. One reason for this is the water, because for years he was a hydrologist. But nevertheless, which city does he consider his home? He recalls Baghdad, a city by a river, in minute detail, including the smell that rose from the river near his house. It was by chance that he chose Haifa, a city by the sea, as his home, while he was still on the plane that brought him to Israel from Iran in 1949.

At age 21 he left Iraq for Iran to escape an arrest warrant issued against him because of his membership in the Communist underground. He stayed in Iran for nine months until he was forced to flee from there as well, and then immigrated to Israel. "In the plane, around sunrise, I saw the sea and white houses," he says. "And as though the plane were acceding to my wishes, it turned around and landed in Kiryat Yam."

Michael seems to have built his sense of home based on what he lacks here: Being at home is the opposite of being a refugee, of the years of persecution and forced emigration. "The first days, after the landing, were my private Holocaust," says Michael. "I felt like an alien creature, blindfolded and dropped into a place where nobody understood me or my language. I was a stranger, lonely, without a home or an address, without relatives, with only the clothes on my back. It's a feeling of being dwarfed. You're a 22-year-old man and you feel retarded. Everything that had made me an educated person was gone."

The experience of being a refugee was seared into his awareness. A few months after he immigrated, Michael found a room in Wadi Nisnas in the home of an elderly, childless Arab woman who adopted his as a son. He worked for an Arabic newspaper, wrote a weekly column and began to publish his first stories in Arabic. "The Wadi was my first stable home," he says. "The place that restored my self worth. It was a kind of branch of my spiritual homeland, of the language. I became close to the Arab population, to the point where they forgot I was a Jew and more than once tried to find a match for me." Years later he began to write in Hebrew, and in the process of adopting the new language, he says, the fluency of his Arabic writing was impaired. "I activated a forgetting mechanism."

For him, Wadi Nisnas symbolizes the sanity of Haifa. In the Wadi they are proud of him. A street was named after him, Sami Michael Road. The walls of the homes are adorned with passages from his books in Hebrew and Arabic.

"I'm afraid for this island of quiet," says Michael. "How much longer will it be able to withstand the pressure?"

Michael says that as in all the Arab or mixed cities, the Christian residents are leaving - of all people, the moderate middle class that is trying to achieve stability. A secure home, a street where one can walk. They're all leaving the region where a solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict is not in sight."

This year Michael will be 80 years old. For almost 60 of those years he has lived in Haifa. There is no author who has written about Haifa as he has. Radio and television stations all over the world ask to interview him, "the intellectual who did not leave the burning north," in the words of one researcher. He accedes only to a very small percentage of the requests, usually those from foreign stations. That same afternoon he was interviewed by an Arabic-language radio station in Monte Carlo. The interviewer asked his opinion of the war. "War is madness," replied Michael from his place on the sofa near the window. "Madness."