No olives in Tel Aviv

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Stunned I remain motionless for a moment, too shocked to react. “Oh, no!” the Jews, the Japanese, the Arabic and the Americans all let out a collective sigh. A sentiment of sympathy in their hearts, they cast their eyes downwards on the floor and then towards me. I turn red. It is one of the most awkward moments of my life. As if I have just dropped my dinner plate on the floor at a crowded Page 3 party, with all the yellow dal, the sticky sabzi, the rice, the oily chicken pieces and the broken pieces of China strewn all around. I avoid their eyes and concentrate on locking the suitcase shut. The Black woman behind the check-in counter of El Al that grandly proclaims “It is not an airline. It is Israel” notices this, sobers up a bit, but offers no apology, shows no remorse. A middle aged, uniformed sweeper appears and asks, “Do you want to collect it or can we clean it up?”

I take out a bundle of clothes from my overweight suitcase and press it hard to lock. But with the pressure of a long passenger queue on my back waiting patiently for their turn, I am a bundle of nerves, and the simple task of locking the suitcase assumes impossible proportion. “Can I help?” a man comes forward. “Do it this way,” an elderly woman suggests. On my knees now, I become a show, like a Shakespearean tragic hero, the Ben Gurion International Airport, a sprawling stage.

It is humiliating. But that’s not the reason why my eyes well up. It has more to do with the spilled out contents scattered all over the polished marble floor. What will I tell my little one! Tara will be so disappointed. I throw a dirty look once again at the Black woman – the one responsible for this. Almost involuntarily, a curse forms on the tip of my tongue, all ready to fire. I hold myself, but can’t stop from muttering under my breath: “You will never know the joys of being a mother.” Coming as it does straight from the heart of an anguished father, I am afraid the curse will work its spell.

All is well that ends well, but my tour of Tel Aviv, the largest city of Israel, has been just the opposite. Everything has been well, except for the end.

View from the top
But first things first. The 5 pm view from the 18th floor balcony of my hotel, Harods, grand by design but stingy by nature (it offers free wifi access only for half hour in 24 hours), is astounding. The electric blue Mediterranean is to my right, the sky-touching high-rises on take-off modes rising from amongst the cluster of cubes, cardboard and matchbox blocks to my left, the beach sandwiched like a layer of cheese between them. Supporting tiny life forms, it is the playground of bikini babes – some playing volleyball, others lounging tummy down, braless. Yummy mummies chase their naked kids, play Frisbee or build sand castles. It’s a place to take the dogs out for a stroll, families to bond, singles to mingle, and poets to scribble sunset sonatas. Bare-chested men in boxers dare the waves in surfboards; others wheeze past in kick-boards; the teenagers roller-skating or performing bike stunts. The blue is inviting, the buzz is infectious and the breeze cottons in on my face. How can you stay put in the balcony! Why not join the party! I descend down the hotel and walk, not without feeling overdressed in my jeans and T, and not without feeling a bit lonely at the sight of the couples in liplocks, families in festive mode and friends in foursomes. I miss my little one, my wife. I call New Delhi. “Papa, how are you?” That’s my six-year-young on the line. “Am fine Poochie, and tell me what do you want from Israel?” I ask. “Something I love,” Tara says.

Am I the only singleton here? No, there are others. What’s that woman seated on the steps scribbling on her pad? Alone, is she? “Hi what’s it you writing?” I am about to ask her when I notice that she has company. Phone glued to her ear, she is deep in a whispery conversation with someone. I retreat disappointed, and walk on, passing by silver citizens on wheel chairs, joggers in headphones, women in sports bras and office executives in loosened ties on a leisure walk before they head home. The beats from the boomboxes wafting out of the many pubs and restaurants make my legs move in a rythmn. Only to walk over a near-nude woman – a photo actually printed on a pile of visiting cards deliberately scattered around the sand to afford maximum visibility. It has a phone number in large font size followed by the name “Amanda’ that runs across the length of her body on a bed. “Call for nirvana” it says. Sex for sale.

Blame it on those provocative business cards, for why on earth will I find myself playing the Peeping Tom soon after! Standing on the balcony back in my hotel, I look intently at the Crowne PLaza Beach Tel Aviv right next to my hotel. What’s happening in those luxurious rooms radiant in gold? A couple in the middle of a love-making session? A woman on the nude reading a book tummy down on her bed? Or perhaps in the middle of a dress change! And wait, why is that woman lifting up her skirt? Applying moisteriuser on her legs? My eyes scan the many windows, my eyes looking for voyeuristic proofs to an overactive imagination. Yes, I see the silhouette of a woman pacing up and down her room. Is she in her bare essentials? I can’t really make out, but as I turn away, my eyes fall on a pink triangle resting on a chair back in the adjacent balcony. It is left for drying, but who is the wearer? A young woman, perhaps! Or does it belong to a 75 year old granny? But will a grand mom ever wear a thong?

I make myself a cup of tea and switch on the TV. I have an hour to pass before I can join our group at 8 for dinner. I ignore BBC and Sky News to check out the local channels. You may not understand the lingo, but local programmes always give you a damn good idea about the local flavours. A drama series shows a very drunk boss getting sentimental on his employee; another one shows a woman getting very violent and volatile over a man who is probably her hubby. I take a balcony break again. It’s twilight and towering Tel Aviv is springing to life, yellow glows illuminating the 7.30 pm sky. The sea shades its blue robe to don a black nightgown. At 180 feet above the ground, I can hear no waves, but there is no mistaking those tiny dots in constant momentum on the beach under the lights – a few are still having a ball of a time, quite literally.

 

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Beware, she will run over you
“Namaste,” smiles the waiter. Heads turn at our table as the familiar word leaps out from amidst a chorus of strange Hebrew voices. Soham, like most Israelis, has stayed in India for 6 months after the compulsory military service and has picked up a smattering of Hindi. The restaurant is a very classy affair. Candles and chandeliers, white frilly sheer curtains, bespoke China and Israeli Shiraz compliment the dishes. Dinner conversation which flows as smoothly as the wine becomes louder with every glass of reds or white. “We Israelis are still new to the wine culture. It is more of a celebratory drink for occasions, but now we are beginning to love our wines,” says our escort Avihai Tsabari, who used to be a sommelier post his military training with Mosad. This new-found love has now taken the shape of several vineries and winemakers. “Same is the case with Indians,” I say. “We do have a few winemakes too.” Israel also makes a variety of liquid sunshine, but local beers are expensive, driving the young towards foreign brands like Tuborg or Heineken.

Perhaps it is the Israeli wine. For soon, one of our group members, a 22 year old UK educated Delhi girl, make this startling revelation that shocks our Israeli hosts. The gist is this: “In rape capital Delhi, if a man comes in front of my car at night, I will not hesitate to run over him.” Delhi is dangerous for woman, this much everyone knows, but what Avihai didn’t know is that it can be equally dangerous for men, especially if one tries to hitch a ride in a Delhi night. “In that case, I would be better off skipping Delhi during my India tour,” he says in mock fear.

Party republic
Wined and dined, we are now ready for the night. Bursa Night Club will just not allow us entry. I try the advice offered by the press councilor of the Israeli embassy in New Delhi. “Israelis love India and Indians. Just tell them that your are from India and see how doors open!” he had said. “We are from India!” I exclaim as if these were Ali Baba’s magic words that open the door to a treasure laden cave. But the burly bouncer, all of 6 feet, would not be swayed. What’s the problem? Is there an entry ticket? Well, it turns out, Shristi – the one you should never ask for a ride at night in Delhi– just doesn’t look her age. This 22 year old has stopped growing after 17 –  under-aged for nightclub entry. Worse, she carries with her no I card to show. But the bar next door with a party at its peak has no such rules, even as burly Bulgarians shake their beer bellies with the swinging desi hips. Our next night spot is not really a bar, but a commercial space like Nehru Place. With shops and offices shut for the night, the plaza turns into a party place, amped up by music played by DJs who look like 60s rock and rollers with long sideburns, longer pony tails and the longest shirt collar I have ever seen. Ensconced in a mini van fitted with turntables, the music is streamed live across the world on internet radio. There is no dancing here, rather it is a place for courting couples who if not cooing into each others ears are either too stoned on medical marijuana to do anything or too drunk to realise that the place they are foreplaying is not a bed, but a horizontal dustbin. Israel is a tolerant community, non-judgmental by nature, intimate physical relationship and PDAs nothing to gawk at, mock at, or a reason for hizras to pinch your money and police to beat the hell out of you. And the government is liberal enough to understand this. In the spirit of things, a very drunk woman bundled in black Bulgari with a pair of Christian Louboutin heels in her hands, titters towards me, clutches my hand for support and trudges me forward towards infinite possibilities – only to stop at a point beyond which I am allowed no access and disappears. It is the woman’s loo. I wait for her outside, high on hopes of a delicious night, but there is no sign of her. I ask a woman coming out: Have you spotted a curly-haired woman in black inside?  I find my answer in her question: “The one who has passed out?”

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But it is at the Municipal sponsored White Night that I see the Tel Avivers breaking into a glorious song and dance. The entire city is in a carnival mode, the excitement building up through the day with stages, sound systems and party zones being set up at neighbourhood parks, city squares and plazas, with shops shutting by noon. You have to experience the hysteria to believe it. Everyone is out on the streets in groups, singing, drumming, strumming guitars, and greeting passersby and onlookers, portable speakers leaving a trail of high decibel techno and Hip Hop beats. The crowd screams and whistles. I call up wifey to make her and Tara listen to the sounds of this Jewish city, but Tara’s mind is elsewhere. “Papa,” she says, her voice, low and down, streams from across the Mediterranean, “When are you coming back? I am feeling lonely.” “Poochie, just wait for two more days, ok? Now you sleepu. Good night, sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. And sure I will get you something you love, ok!” I sign off.

A burly middle-aged man strapped in a mobility vehicle seems to be enjoying the Bollywood night at the Central Plaza. A retired professor, this Jew has been in Israel for 17 years, moving in from the US. “Israel is the only country that is home to the Jews,” he says, and loves the city for this high spirit, never mind the frequent rocket attacks from Hamas, the Palestinian armed outfit. “We are at good at our defence capabilities but it is nothing to be proud of. It is a necessity for us to protect ourselves,” he offers.

If this party is loud, the next party we are off to, in what can only be a magnificent tribute to the environment, is absolutely quiet. Futuristic graphics and images are projected onto a 27-storey skyscraper that forms the backdrop to a stage bathed in psychedelic lasers, with DJs lording over heaving bodies in thousands. Yet you can hear no sounds. What’s the crowd – mostly teenagers in their one night of unlimited freedom that their parents allow on White Night – jiving to? Well, hypnotic trance on headphones! Pay Rs 100 for a pair and music streams into your ears via Bluetooth. It’s a night when they can flaunt their tattoos on the cleavages of butts and bosoms; get away wearing virtually nothing; or smoke pot without a frown of disapproval. But Avihai, just married, isn’t amused. “What’s wrong with them? Why are they all dressed like sluts!”

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Dog’s the way to a date
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Israeli women are a gorgeous lot. Pretty and petite, generously endowed in all the right places, flatboard tummies, wasp-like hips and curly hair, it would sure be nice to befriend one. “Give me a pick-up line, buddy” I ask our guide. Actually, there is none, the guide says. “Just get a dog,” he advises. “Don’t joke! What do you mean?”  I am impatient. “No, seriously get a dog, take it for a walk and when you come across a girl, also with a dog, slow down and let yours sniff the other,” he advises, “This is when you strike a conversation, exchange phone numbers, fix a date and decide, ‘your place or mine?” even as you let your dogs have a good time.” That explains it – why most young Israelis on the street have a canine companion!

No kissing please, just shakes
She – Avihai’s brand new wife Meital Weissman – refuses to kiss me good night. “You are a dangerous man. You will corrupt my husband,” she says shaking my hand instead. Her refusal has got to do with my observation on matrimonial relationships. Over calamari, squids and octopus, and charged up by a few full-bodied reds, I cite a research that scandalises and shocks her. “Man is polygamous by nature. Monogamy is enforced by man,” I say. “A man will be a hunter always. This instinct comes from the stone ages when women kept the house and men went out for the kill. Subconsciously this primitive instinct is still there in us,” I hold forth in my alcoholic wisdom. To add to her misery, her hubby has been very upset with her these past few days for throwing away his old boots. “You just cannot do that, they are my first love. I am very emotionally attached to my boots. They were with me much before you came,” he argues. “Excuse me, what did you just say!?” she breaks into a mock fury,

Soon they kiss and make up and it is actually very cute to see this new couple who carve out their own private space in the very public dinner by staring at each other, holding hands in the first chance they get, or sharing a whispery aside.

“Don’t worry,” say the girls in our group as we say bye to Meital, “we shall take care of your husband.” Which they do subsequently, by shouting out a firm NO every time his eyes waver towards a streetside stunner.

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Will you marry me?
By day, we explore the flower, fruit, fish and bread markets. The ancient shops sell herbal drinks, dates, cheese, variety of spices, kiwi fruits, apples (so shiny that you can look at it and comb your balding head), and olives Israel is so famous for. Yes, olives. Tara is crazy about them. This is one souvenir she would never have enough of. I pick up two bottles of it.

The market is like a canvas. The orthodox Jew in long twirling locks, long beards, black hats and long coats are like an artist’s portrait as they walk about, reading the holy book in hand. Each face is a story that I want to hear. I want to chat up with that young woman in dreadlocks sitting out at an outdoor café; the beggar with a hat; the woman in designer multi-coloured burqa; others in harem pants, wraparounds, spaghettis and shorts. Meanwhile, a graying shopkeeper in jeans and black T shirt sells cheese with an interesting strategy: He draws attention to himself with a high energy dance performance to an electronic track.

Cycles are popular, but many now use an electric powered three-wheeled scooter. Interestingly, luxury cars like Jaguars, Lamborghini, Ferraris and even Mercs and BMWs – staple in any big city – are conspicuous by their absence. Instead, the newest to join the fleet of street cars, I am happy to notice, is a car I drive myself in Delhi: Hyundai Elantra.

The Indian connect
Israel has moved on from Ichak Dana Beechak Dana to Tu hein mera fantasy; from Raj Kapur to Sharrukh Khan. An Indian couple we meet teaches Bollywood choreography: How to prance around trees in the rains in white wet sarees! India is again the flavour when a group of ISKCON members in sarees, tikkas in foreheads, dhotis and dhols parade down the main roads singing Hare Krishna, hare Krishna, stopping by bars, pubs and traffic islands where, like us, more people join them in the infectious celebrations.

Most Indians here work in the IT sector and those from south of India work as nurses. Even the caretaker of Avihai’s granddad who died during the course of our stay, was Indian. “He has become family. He cannot speak a word of English or Hebrew but perfectly understood his grandfather’s command,” says Avihai. Now his mother is devastated that he will be gone. Some Indians are taxi drivers. On our way to the airport, our taxi driver hearing us speaking in Hind cannot resist flaunting his desi connect. His mother is actually from Bombay. Shopkeepers smile benignly when they see our group of Brownskins and the next thing you hear are experiences from their India tour, rattling off names like Hampi, Manali, Jaisalmer and Goa. With so much love for India, it isn’t surprising when an Orthodox Jew in his 60s proposes marriage to a blushing Ankita. “Well, I am married,” she says, but this genial Silver in a kippah (Jeweish cap) would not give up. “Then find me a Jewish woman from India!” he winks.

That evening I call Tara again. “Guess what I got for you? Your favourite! Olives!” I tell her. “Really Papa,” she says, excited. “Oh, how much I loooooove you, papa,” she says.

Jafa: Old gold
The day next we are at Jafa, an ancient city near Tel Aviv. Our guide Avihai, a non-stop talking machine, brings the city to life. Every word of his bears the weight of history, wisdom and wit. His accent is American, and it almost sounds like a recorded audio guide as he deconstructs 5000 year old history in 120 minutes. Painted doors, archways, up and down roads, clock towers, arty galleries, limestone houses, flea markets selling old typewriters to dysfunctional wall clocks with frozen time, djembe and other traditional instruments; a tree branch that in the hands of artisan becomes a guitar, brass gramophones, and indeed many things which you see in the touristy Paharganj in New Delhi. In fact, many of the stuff are actually from Indian suppliers. We walk, stop, and walk again listening to the complex, many-layered stories of the origin of Christianity, the orthodox Jews, The Crusaders, St Marks, and so on. It is hot and we eye a bench under a tree. Time for a Coke break.

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Bye bye Tel Aviv
The 3 am scene at the airport is that of a mass exodus. As if a war or violent civil unrest has broken out from which everyone wants to escape. The airport is packed till the seams. The variety of racial and facial profiles itself is mindboggling. The dramatic orthodox Jews, the argumentative Indians, the smart Singaporians, hinterland Chinese, high on high-tech Japanese, the Afros with their swagger, the weather-battered urban nomads, the Muslims in hijab and burqa, the pale but hardy Scandinavians, the Latin Americans, and of course, the Americans whom you don’t have to see to be aware of their presence. Their voices are loud enough to trumpet their arrival, their mannerisms too overfriendly, playful and patronising. Not that it cuts ice with the stern Israeli security guys who shoot from the mouths: “What do you do? Why were you in Israel? What did you buy? Where all did you go? Who all did you meet? Are you carrying anything that can be labeled dangerous? Has anyone befriended you and gave you things to drop? Have you received any gifts? The questions come much before you even reach the check-in counter. No wonder the queues are inching away laborously, a man even clearing Level 5 of a video game on his android.

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“You suitcase is over weight. You have to pay,” says the black woman of El Al when my turn finally comes. “Well, we are five of us, so adjust the weight with theirs,” I request.

“No, that cannot be done,” she says, her attitude bordering on rude. “So are you paying?”

“But that’s what all airlines do if you are in a group,” I argue.

“This is not all other airline,” she snaps. I turn to my group members for relief. But where are they?

It turns out, they are urged to move on by the guards to other counters, leaving me alone. Feeling helpless, I immediately get down on my knees to transfer some weight to my hand luggage. The problem is, the suitcase is stuffed beyond its capacity and shut by force. Which means now if I open it, things will just tumble out. Worse, my handbag is too small and I will have to carry the bundle of clothes in my hands. Left with no option, I open my suitcase and no sooner than I do that, a nerve-jangling sound rattles me. It is the reaction when you hear glass shattering. Shock turns to sorrow when I discover that of all the breakable things, it has to be the two bottles of premium olives I bought at an exclusive olive boutique! Now broken into tiny pieces, the olives roll out of the bottles in every direction, oil spilling out and spreading all across the floor.

I remain motionless for a moment. A sense of defeat takes over, as I reload the bag, much less in weight now, on the belt, a bundle of shirts awkwardly under my arms. An intense grief. An irreplaceable loss. A feeling of frustration. The most precious content in my suitcase meant for my little one, nurtured throughout the tour, has to end in this!! What kind of a dad am I? I can’t even protect my daughter’s little joys. Will I be ever able to protect her at all?

I am returning home empty handed. “Papa, olives??” I can almost hear her voice. And I can almost see her eyes. Disappointed. Daddy with empty hands. Happy homecoming? I doubt.

Olives. A symbol of peace. Now an object of anger and anguish.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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