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Monday, April 16, 2001
By Paul Ford
2/3 of the world is stories; the rest is sleep.
Last night, dogs began barking at 3AM, and continued for hours of give and take across the yards. The closest dog barked in a syncopated rhythm - woof WOOF woof WOOF. The farthest dog barked like a motor winding down - arrrrrROOFRoofroofoofuhuhuh. At 5, the songbirds came in, and crows began to caw, and finally the rooster: bruck-bayouuuull, bruck-bayouuuull, louder than the Bronx Zoo aviary.
The crows sounded as if they were perched on the nightstand. I opened my eyes, expecting to see them, big oily bodies and impudent stares. But they were outside, stomping around the rafters, drinking crow coffee, nibbling toasted seedcakes with their surly black beaks. I closed my eyes against the noise, right as something large and airborne smashed into the screen window a few feet from my head.
I found some sleep at around 8. At 9:30 the maid came in without knocking and immediately retreated. I yelled after her not to worry, and pulled my big body out of bed. I shaved with my three-bladed razor, and went down to the basement, to my desk.
It's hard to get used to these suburbs, dislocated, far from trains and crowds. I'm here until May 6, making less money than normal, but my expenses are covered, and it evens out.
The first week was surprisingly rough, a mix of homesickness and lost direction. My relationship with K was over, descending into a space of mutual boredom so acute that we have begun to work together, something that, with any prior girlfriend, would be inconceivably tense and dangerous, but here is unremarkable and amiable. Perhaps if you can still talk to someone after a split, you were wrong for one another; there's more roughness and irrational fever in anything durable. She kindly saw me to the Olympia bus, which would take me to Newark airport. I stepped on, found a seat, and was alone.
I was scared, when I first got here, of not knowing my way around, getting lost, worried about my own shyness. Two people have asked if my parents were worried for me - family is important here - and I responded both times, “my parents lived in Turkey under martial law in the 60s. They understand I'm not in a war zone.” The questioners nod. They know keenly how America takes in the news, our media-angled perceptions. They try to see things through our market-driven eyes.
I watch the television reports, piped in through cable. The ambient gray faces of CNN, Sky News, and BBC World News. A story of mortars or bombings, then cut to a shot of a desert mountain, a puff of smoke, and a nameless accounting of one or two dead. In a country the size of New Jersey, the violence is closer to me than Connecticut is to Brooklyn.
The names come off the tongue: Hebron, Gaza, Golan Heights, Jerusalem. By taxi, Tel Aviv is 15 minutes from these offices in Savion, at a cost of 65 New Israel Shekels each way. I went there Wednesday, with some coworkers, to a self-conscious bar called, painfully, Abraxas, after a Santana album. The women in Tel Aviv are the most beautiful I have ever seen; at this soft stage in my life it inspires not lust but awe. Their faces are illuminated like silver platters; their hips and breasts would send Solomon reeling.
On Saturday night I ate hummus and vegetables at a cafe with a friend. This is how the bombings happen, I thought, you sit at a cafe, someone comes up wearing a nail bomb, and --
But it didn't happen, and doesn't but rarely. Less than you'd think. The waitress was blond, from Oregon.
When I came back from Israel the last time, in February, I wanted the story of the place, and did the required reading. I went to Revolution Books on 19th St. in Manhattan and brought Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle to the counter, along with the illustrated Israel and Arabs for Beginners and the man behind the counter beamed and said, "You're beginning to read up?"
I felt irked, co-opted. “I just came back, and might have some work there,” I said. His smile became a line. A woman behind the counter said, “I have something for you!” She pulled out two copies of The Revolutionary Worker with photos of Arabs on the cover. “These have everything you need to know about Israel in them,” she said. “To get you started.” Another starting point among dozens. Do you go back 6000 years or 52? Do you read Said or Chomsky or The New York Times? The role of the British? How do you factor in the Holocaust?
Six months ago, over a cup of coffee, I read the cover of the Saturday New York Times, across the table from my neighbor. Our laundry spun at the laundromat four doors down. I saw my billionth headline about the Middle East and said to my neighbor, fuck it, I'm not reading another word about Israel. I just don't have room in my brain.
4 months later I was landing at Ben-Gurion on an Ftrain junket, my first trip out of the states, and now I'm here for a month, writing Web copy for the same company, a research institute that seeks to create a machine which can pass the Turing Test, a machine that have a full human conversation
No one around me speaks about the situation - unless they're discussing the news in Hebrew, outside of my cognitive range - but I don't think so; it would be like talking about rain in Seattle or corn in Iowa. Unless you want war to be the axis around which your life turns, you would have to decide on the limits of your conscience, serve your time in the army, get educated or not, find work, read books, watch movies, and curse your leaders. Like anyone.
Me, I am cloistered and networked in the safe suburbs. I still haven't found a starting point for learning about Israel, but that's most likely me; Ftrain, for example, is 4 years of looking for a way to being writing something, and I've yet to find one.
Here are my findings so far: 2/3 of the world is stories; the rest is sleep. The more I learn the more it seems Israel is the locus of every narrative, where the anguished heart of World War II was sent to be buried, so that the world could be reborn. But the heart has just grown larger, into a science-fiction monster, devouring its surroundings, ticking and ticking. We got used to video footage of people in masks and felt hats and dishdashahs, holding guns, waving chickens, praying, weeping, rising in arms, throwing stones, launching missiles. At the center of the three most violent religions in the world, they planted a huge black tree with newspapers as its leaves and television screens as its flowers. Next week is Remembrance Day, for veterans, followed immediately by Independence Day, Ha'atzma'ut, for a country younger than my father. Stars of David hung from car windows snap as they drive by as stars of David burn on TV.
But step back: while mortars flew I sorted through email at my computer, which cannot understand my motives and forces me to translate my feelings and thoughts into mouse clicks and keyboard shortcuts. I never served in the army, although when I was 16 and Bush's father was president, I found out about how to register as a conscientious objector, because I was a serious Christian with a poster of Gandhi and couldn't fathom why humans needed so much violence. (A few years later, after being beaten and kicked by a drunk and not fighting back out of fear and principle, sitting in the shower with bruises on my chest, I changed my mind.)
In my day-to-day work in Israel, I am trying to convey to a general Web reader why this company will succeed in building an intelligent machine. They are raising a baby computer, teaching it to babble like an infant, with the goal of bringing it quickly out of toddlerhood, then pulling it along the rough path of digital puberty and through to a smooth and servile adulthood. In 10 years, it should pass the Turing Test. Perhaps they'll succeed. There's no reason why not, and I admire the chutzpah.
On my many breaks during the first week I read the Jerusalem Post on the Web, an English-language Israeli paper, but it has the stink of propaganda. I check CNN, read the Times.
A pay phone detonates; Sharon wants a a return to Zionist values in education. Helicopters press forward past wild beach parties in Tel Aviv. Friday is Yom Ha'Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance day.
Finally I come across the English edition of Ha'aretz , an abbreviated version of the Hebrew liberal daily. The news is grim. The editorials are written by doves flying over an endless battlefield, no spot to land. But it's what I needed, and my mood was raised, reading something that felt honest, accurately ambiguous. 19-year-old Israeli conscientious objectors are put in solitary confinement for a month; a Jewish baby is shot by a sniper; Palestinian shops are destroyed; the Arabs insist that the baby was shot by its own parents because it was handicapped. The fear in the editorials seems less fear of blood than of moral catastrophe, of the soul of the Jews circling down the drain in mutual intolerance, nearly 6,000 years after the first signs from God.
Some have mortars. Some work for peace. Some, Palestinian refugees, work picking fruit for 30 sheckels a day, half a cab ride. Some, like Ariel Sharon, whom I watched on television tonight, listening without comprehension as he spoke Hebrew, define peace as “non-belligerency.”
In America, there were riots in Cincinnati after cops shoot a fifth Black man. In New York, there is an invisible infrastructure of trucks and travel, shop-clerks and shelf-stockers that keeps my life seamless, makes sure the bottled water is always in the glass-cased refrigerator, the elevators working, the cheap Chinese food delivered on time.
I work on web site copy, feeling productive - genuinely productive, and I'm glad of my work, glad of the people who have brought me here, their warmth and kindness, glad of my friend in Tel Aviv taking me for hummus, glad of the green stink of fertilizer over fields, listening to music on my headphones, reading about the illegal trade in bread during Passover.
When I came over, my friends said, “You are going to Israel to help others build a working machine brain. For Christ's sake, write about it.” But all these stories are not my stories, and I couldn't have them if I wanted them. I don't want them. They're too big and different; I've never held a submachine gun or launched a Davidka or fled Germany or been ejected from my family's farm by strange Ottoman law. While I'm here I'll try to take it in, but I lack the depth of experience, the understanding of others, at this age, to interpret, and so I'll do the best I can, keep writing, keep working, and finally, on May 6, I'll go home to Brooklyn, to an apartment that rattles in the wake of the passing Ftrain.