Tel Aviv Diary June 29, 2003 - Karen Alkalay-Gut

Tel Aviv Diary - from June 29, 2003 Karen Alkalay-Gut

June 29, 2003

Let me see, where was I? Sometimes I get so distracted by the little things, life, I get behind in writing. Strange how our values get all twisted.

So I was coming home from visiting Dalia in Ichilov today and listening to "the Bureau of Missing Relatives" which has been a daily show on the radio since WWII, and suddenly i was overwhelmed by the immediacy - people looking for aunts who disappeared in the war - a cousin who definitely moved to south america in '47, a sister in Siberia. The program seemed to be dying out a few years ago but came back in full force with the latest Russian Immigration. All Ashkenazi. Funny, the 200,000 Jews who were exiled from Arab countries seem to have stayed in touch with each other. But then that was an exile, not a Holocaust.

What about Condolisa? She came. She left. Now we're playing Hudna.

Some things they said about the agreement today on the local news: 1. that Condolisa now understands that the fence Sharon is building is in effect taking land from the Palestinians. We've known it all along, but some of us console ourselves with the fact that if the Palestinians had been with us on the fence, it would have been more fair. And if they had built a fence, they might have built it on the seashore.

2. that we in fact believe the Hamas will keep the cease fire.

3. that the game of moral high ground may be the initial reason for the agreements but it might make a better future anyway.

June 30, 2003

This has not been a good day for foreign workers. First a Bulgarian worker was killed in a drive-by shooting - by gunmen in the Shomrom. So much for the hudna. (But still - fingers are crossed and Gaza is a completely different story...) Second another gas explosion in tel aviv killed 7 Nigerians. I called Michal right off to make sure that her relatives were okay - because they live a few alleys away - and she was very shook up. Because all of us know that the gas situation in tel aviv has deteriorated - not enough inspections, not enough attention. Apparently that's all changing now. But not fast enough for me. Once I saw an explosion like that in Syosset, N.Y. - a whole house suddenly became tinder.

I haven't been writing about the night life around here lately - tonight i had the absolute thrill of listening to Victor Oida play Farid al Atrash on the canon, and then Shlomy Goldenberg play Theolonius Monk on the sax. Afterword they tried to jam and it was just beginning to work together when they stopped. It isn't easy putting the 2 musics together.


July 1, 2003

The Great Sandu David died yesterday = he must have been 80, and a lion. He chaired so many writers organizations i lost track, and helped found the Federation of writers' unions. At his funeral I remembered a story i once wrote about him, where i called him Mircea:

                   RUMANIA RUMANIA


     It is by sheer chance that we are all together sitting at this table in the writers' cafe.  I am in town for only a few days, David is on his way to Rumania, Evan, the editor, is going to America next week, and Mircea comes to the cafe only once or twice a week.  But we have so much to talk about!  Officially there is the journal to discuss, but we are all so full of our travels and experiences to be shared that we carry on simultaneous conversations.

     David is learning about bribery in Rumania from Mircea, who was born there and has returned several times.  When does one give a bribe, what does one give, and to whom.  How is a bribe distinguished from a "gift", say to the girl encountered in a bar in the evening and dismissed in the morning.  To David the whole thing seems so awkward, so alien to his shy straightforward character, he says.   

     Mircea leans back and lights a cigarette, in preparation for the story he will tell.  "When I first went back to Rumania," he begins, smiling, "I went back to the town where my family had lived, and met there a cousin.  We had a very emotional reunion and my cousin gave me a pair of candlesticks from the town.  Then he took me to the airport and waited for me to go through customs.  

     "The customs inspector was very polite.  He opened my suitcase, and sniffed ‑ 'Ah, such fragrant tobacco!  What brand is it? 'I told him that someone had given them to me in Holland, and agreed with him that they were indeed fragrant.  Then he began to finger the silk handkerchief I had picked up in Paris, and admired the material.  It really was beautiful material ‑ that was why I bought it, I told him, enthusiastically, because in my country such softness is unknown.  He next admired a flask of perfume I had purchased for my wife, and I explained how she had given me specific instructions as to which perfume to choose.  

     "I was happy with our little conversation, sure that the sophistication of my purchases ‑ and they were also legal ‑ were appreciated by the world wise customs inspector.  But he was despairing of my ever understanding what was expected of me.  Finally he grabbed hold of the candlesticks and said, "These are not allowed for export."  "Ah," I said, "I didn't know", and returned the candlesticks to my waiting cousin.

     "Fool," I realized on the way home, "He didn't want the candlesticks, he wanted a bribe.  And he gave me every hint possible.

     "Still, I was educated in this socialist country where a bribe is an insult, and I am the kind of writer who can only learn about situations when they are engrained deeply on my flesh.  So the next time I went back, in an official capacity, I remained blind.  I went with a friend who was so sure his official business had granted him status he had neglected to get the required cholera shots before he left home.  We went through customs all right, but as we were about to leave the airport, he was taken aside and told he would have to spend two weeks in quarantine. 

     "I was enraged, and swore that unless my friend was released I would return home on the next plane, with all our business unfinished.  I raged and carried on and startled them so that that even put me in touch with the Assistant Minister of Health on the telephone from the airport.  This reassured me.  It began to look like the bureaucracy would be smoothed over for my friend and so I took a taxi to wait for him at the hotel.  

     "When I arrived at the hotel, I barely had time to get myself together before I looked up and saw my friend.  "You see," I told him, "How a strong voice and an influential position go far!"  I was really impressed with my power, but he interrupted my monologue with a laugh.  'No, no...there was a woman doctor there.  I gave her two pairs of pantyhose and she told me I appeared an intelligent man, and that I should go to the hotel and call her if I get any symptoms of cholera.'

     "So I learned my lesson."

     "Pantyhose, eh," says David admiringly.  "They still get you pretty far." 

     "Oh, very far," says Mircea, absorbed.

     "Will I be able to get girls with pantyhose?" asks David.

     "If that's what you want, but you must be discrete.  Give it to them after.  Otherwise you insult their honor."  

     "To doctors before, to girls after." David mutters as if memorizing. "But how can I put pantyhose in my suitcase without my wife suspecting?"

     "Tell her they are for the maids, the hotel people..." I say, trying to crawl into the conversation.

     "You put condoms in your suitcase and tell your husband they're presents for the staff?" he sniffs.  I can see I'm out of my league.

    "You think the duty free shops are open at 4:00 a.m. when my plane leaves? ... Perhaps I'll leave them at the foot of the stairs of our apartment building, pick them up as I go down to the taxi...You know, the more primitive the country is, the better chance you have of making a killing."

     "Not at all," says Mircea, "It may be true that the victory is more obvious, but the more primitive the country the less the killing is worth."

     "What about the woman writer ‑ the famous poet ‑ should I give her pantyhose too?"

     "No, no, for her you must bring cognac.  I have seen her finish a bottle in an evening.  And she will introduce you to all the others who can help you there."

     Evan, who has been concluding some business with a fellow from another table, turns back to us now and demands our full attention.  "Come on, come on guys," he begins to push us around as only the editor of a literary magazine can do to aspiring writers, "I'm leaving the country soon and I need translations ‑ you do that and I'll make sure that story of yours gets in the next issue.  From you I need an interview, something modest, but something that will discuss the influence of our journal."  

     "I understand," Mircea smiles, "that the journal has been applying for a grant from the committee I chair."

     "I'm very busy now," David gets up to leave, "I have to get ready for my trip to Rumania, and the stores close in an hour." 

     "What men!" Evan shakes his head.  "It's precisely because they know the world that they are such good writers."

     I smile expectantly.

     "But you, you're never around to do your work."

     I leave the cafeteria bogged down with a list of assignments, even though my story probably won't get in the next issue anyway.


But the story doesn't tell you anything about him - except that he was sophisticated. From the time he came to Israel in 1944 he worked in agriculture and literature, promoting Rumanian literature in particular but others as well. The other night there was a prize giving ceremony for him - I wanted to be there - but i screwed up the dates. maybe i wrote about that too. anyway he was involved in poetry until his last days and i missed seeing him for the last time because i'm scatterbrained.

But here's a good bye story for you - because i'm supposed to be going to london, remember? can't seem to leave the stories here but i will have to.

Anyway the funeral of Sandu was a real literary sign of the times. Years ago, when Yona Wollach died, it turned out the burial committee wanted extra money or something to bury her in a writers' area. it couldn't be arranged in time, so she got to be buried like everyone else. But after that Shulamit Lapid - who was then the chair of the hebrew writers' organization - arranged that all members of the writers association would be buried in a writers' area. There's one in Holon and one in HaYarkon. But when Sandu's family called to arrange his burial, the burial society said that he wasn't a tel aviv resident so they wouldn't take him. and there was a gravediggers' strike = so in the end Sandu got buried in Neve Hadar, a tiny cemetery.

Most of the mourners were weather-worn old farmers, but the writers gave all the speeches. There was one old man next to me who reminded me very much of Yehuda Amichai, and another farmer said to him - you think one of us should make a speech too? And he said, "we said it while he was alive. now we should go and rest our feet."

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