Mahmoud Darwish, heard of him? His books are sold here at the “Yafa: Book Store & Coffee Shop,” where you sip your sweet and bitter coffee at about quadruple the cost other cafÃ©s in the area charge, but you get the chance to entertain your mind with the loftiest of issues.
Haven’t heard of him? Don’t feel bad. Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away in August of 2008, is the most celebrated Palestinian writer of our time. Many of the books sold here are in Arabic, and nine out of ten Israeli intellectuals who come by don’t read Arabic to start with.
Relax. Sip your hot coffee a while longer, drink a cold soda in between. You certainly won’t be bored here. There are a few books in Hebrew as well, for those Jews who insist on reading, but no pressure to buy.
Drinks are more expensive than paper in this establishment and the owner will be thankful to you no matter how you spend your time. Some folks, those who don’t like to read or to drink, come here to listen. This is a place for peace, anti-war; everyone in sight is peaceful and accommodating.
Most who enter -- surely you won’t be surprised by this -- are left-wing Israelis for whom the Coffee Shops is a Mecca. Some Jews come here to give a speech and sell their wares. Like Prof. Shlomo Sand. Heard of him? If you didn’t, maybe you should. Michel, the Coffee Shop’s owner, for example, is an admirer. “Usually,” Michel tells me as he pours his expensive coffee for me, “I give people one hour to talk. But to Prof. Sand I gave three hours.” Michel is an Arab, Prof. Sand is a Jew, and the love between them crosses borders of national identities. “He has an exceptionally good mind,” Michel says to me. “Did you read his recent book?”
Prof. Sand, the author of The Invention of the Jewish People, is a professor of Modern History at Tel Aviv University. Seemingly, at one point or another the esteemed professor experienced an uncontrollable intellectual urge to dab in the ancient world as well. What he claims to have found, and what Michel appreciates so much, is that the Jews of today are not the descendants of the Jews from two thousand years ago. The creatures calling themselves “Jews” in today’s Israel, according to Prof. Sand, originated in the Khazar Kingdom in the Caucasus. The Khazaris, to him, were prodded by their rulers into converting to Judaism, but they bear no relation to the ancient Jews. The obvious political conclusion tastes like honey to Michel: The Jews of Israel have no legal or ethical claim to the land.
Settled. Israeli Jews are fake Jews. But what about Michel? What are his roots? To start figuring this out, I ask him if he is Christian or Muslim. “This,” he says, “I refuse to answer.” Why? “If you ask this question, you must be a Jew.” Me? Since when? “Only Jews ask this question, because they want to divide the Palestinians.” I try to calm him down. “I’m a German journalist,” I explain to him. “I apologize, but sometimes journalists have to ask stupid questions.” Michel accepts my explanation. “I believe in Jesus Christ, and I’m Catholic,” he says proudly.
Here, like across the border in Jordan, from which I arrived some time ago, they love Germany. And some German books as well. One of them, translated into the Arabic, stands proudly in the Featured Books Section above our table: Mein Kampf.
“That’s an old book,” I remind Michel, “why do you sell it?” New, fresh boiling black liquid is poured for the two of us by Hanna, Michel’s brother. “Arabs,” says Michel, sipping his hot coffee, “want to know what happened to the Jews in what the Jews call ‘Holocaust,’ and we want the Arabs to know, to understand the Jews.” A fine attempt, indeed, at multi-culturalism. Does he also sell books by Jewish writers about the so-called Holocaust? “Yes, we surely do. Many of them.” Can I see a few? “You want to see?” Yes. “Now?” Yes. “You want me to--?” Yes, I do. No problem, he’ll gladly show me. Michel gets up and goes to look for the books. Books by Jewish writers about a so-called Holocaust are not displayed in the Featured Books Section, so you have to look for them. It takes Michel about fifteen minutes to find them, all the while he consults with Hanna about the best books to show me. Finally, smile on his face, he comes back with four books “about the Holocaust” and puts them down in front of me in a triumphant gesture. All, of course, are in Arabic.
I open the first book. This one is about the Palestinian economy under occupation. “What does this book have to do with what the Jews call Holocaust?” I ask him. Oops, he is totally startled. “You read Arabic? From Germany?!” The rest of the books, the “Holocaust books,” are political books about Palestinians as well. Nothing to do with Jews, none written by Jews, and not one of them about any Holocaust. “That’s all you have?” I ask him.
Are you sure you are a journalist?” comes the reply. “Journalists from the West,” Michel tells me, “never do this. They always collaborate with me; never challenge me. You are like Mahmoud Darwish. You are deep. It’s not easy with you. I will never forget this interview. Do you think that I should take out Mein Kampf? I will do what you tell me.” “You can keep selling Mein Kampf,” I tell him, “it’s a good book. A classic.”
Hearing this, Michel feels comfortable to share with me some intimate details about his life. For the past three years, he confides in me, he’s dating a Jewish woman. Are they married? No. Any plans to get married? God forbid. “In Israel,” he informs me, “children go after their mother. If I have children with my woman, they will be Jews, and I am not going to bring Jews into the world!” Makes perfect sense. Who needs little Jews? They might grow up and create huge problems. Michel will never admit it, but he and an extremist Jewish rabbi, Yitzhak Shapira, share similar philosophy. Shapira, a man who can’t stand Arabs of any age, claims in a book called Torat Hamelekh that it is permitted to kill Arab children under certain circumstances. You never know. Little Arabs might also grow up one day, and who knows what they will do when they get there.
Frida, Hanna’s daughter and Michel’s niece, eavesdrops on our conversation. Frida is an eighteen-year-old with beautiful black eyes, a sharp gaze and a smile that can kill. She has no problem with grown-up people, Jews that is. How come? “If all the Jews die,” she explains with a captivating smile, “we, the Palestinians, will kill each other like we’re doing in Gaza. It’s better to have the Jews around. If the Jews stay in Palestine, we’ll kill them and not each other.”
Hanna smiles. He loves his daughter and is proud of her wisdom. He’d like her to get married to a nice man, “whomever she chooses.” Democracy. I ask him what would happen if his daughter came home one evening and said to him: ‘Daddy, I found the perfect man for me:
He’s tall, he’s smart, he has strong muscles, he’s rich, he’s dark, and his name is Moshe Cohen.’ What would his reaction be? Hanna doesn’t hesitate for a second. “I hope to God that I don’t have a gun with me at that moment.” Why the fear, would he shoot his daughter? “No, not her.” Mr. Moshe Cohen? “No, not him.” Who else is there to shoot? “I will shoot myself. If the daughter that I raised falls for a Jew, I don’t deserve to live.”
The cups of coffee are by now empty but nobody runs to fill them up again. Michel talks: “We have many Russians in this country. I can get Mein Kampf in Russian and sell it here. Do you think that I should get a few copies? It will take me a day or two to get Russian copies.”
Good that Michel gets to the topic of books again. This, after all, is a place for intellectual talk, not man-love-woman gibberish. I ask Michel if he really read Prof. Sand’s book. Yes, he certainly did, he assures me; cover to cover. I remind him that Prof. Sand, in that same book, also suggests that the Palestinians now living in Israel are the descendants of the ancient Jews. What does he think of this? “How does it feel to wake up in the morning, read a book, and discover that you are a Jew?” I ask my new friend. In a sort of response, I get the bill: sixty-five shekels. A pretty penny for Turkish coffee.
With a bitter taste is in my mouth, I leave Michel & Co. Are these people the exception or are they the rule in the Arab Israeli world? The best way to know, the thought travels in my head, is by talking to more people. But how am I supposed to do this? Am I to stop people on the street, men and women I don’t know, and say: Excuse me, what do you think of Jews?
As I ponder this complicated question, luck shines on me and I notice an advertisement of a demonstration a few streets away. I love demonstrations. When you join one, you immediately feel part of a group; you’re not alone on the planet. Interesting what this demonstration is about. As I reach the place I see at the podium a man, speaking in Arabic, who lashes out at “the Jewish occupation forces in our occupied land,” demands an end to it all, and fumes against the Jewish Occupiers. All applaud. Not a single mouth objects, not one finger raised in disapproval. I guess there’s no need to ask anyone here what they think of the Jews. It’s pretty clear.
What’s not clear, is something else altogether. This is Tel Aviv-Yafo, safely situated within the “’48 Borders.” And if Tel Aviv-Yafo, the most Israeli of cities, is an occupied land, where is a Jew to go? I walk back toward Michel’s in an attempt to find me an intellectual to discuss this with in the depth that it deserves. But “Yafa: Book Store & Coffee Shop” is already closed for the night. Hitler is inside, and Michel is with his Jewess. Is there anybody else around willing to discuss lofty issues with me? I try Ilana, a Jewish lady who lives one floor above Michel’s establishment. Ilana, an avid reader of books, graciously welcomes me into her apartment while chain-smoking her Pall Mall cigarettes. When we sit down she tells me how her family managed to hide from the Nazis and survive the Holocaust. Did she ever read Mein Kampf?, I ask her. No, she did not. Has never even seen the book. “In Israel,” she reveals to me, “it is illegal; you cannot find it anywhere.” Hearing her comment, I try my mental best to figure out how this smart lady’s eyes fail to see the reality literally under her nose.
As the night passes away to make room for the sun I think of the people of yesterday: I think of Ilana, of Michel’s girlfriend, of Prof. Sand, and of many other Jews in the area. Who, I ask myself after much thought, was that idiot who said that Jews are smart? There are surely quite a number of Jewish intellectuals in Tel-Aviv-Yafo, but intellectualism doesn’t always guarantee wisdom. Of course there are exceptions: The Jew Michel, for example, is one of them. He loves the Khazari intellectuals, and I think I know why. Who else, you tell me, will pay sixty-five shekels for Turkish coffee?