“Oriental,” I answered, when my Israeli hosts asked what I wanted for dinner that night. Oriental is what Israelis call middle eastern food and it’s a delicious array of mezzes or salads of eggplant, cucumber, tomatoes, onions, chick peas and on and on. We left their office south of Tel Aviv and drove a good 15 miles south along the coast to a small village not far from one of my colleague’s home. He knew the area and often went to a bakery near our destination restaurant.
We parked on the street and walked towards the restaurant past another bakery, still open, and selling warm challah and pitas, but, mysteriously, no bagels. (I assume there are bagels in Israel, there are enough New York jews there for sure, but I never saw one.) It was dusk of a warm evening. The village wasn’t nearly as tidy as Tel Aviv and several people were just hanging about chatting and smoking and taking in the evening. Some children we’re still playing in an alley off of the street.
The atmosphere in the restaurant had more in common with an American diner than a fine bistro. We sat in a booth at a metal and formica table near the windows, from which I could still make out the darkening ocean over the roofs of houses across the way. The restaurant was nearly empty. Some men wearing the traditional Palestinian black and white Shumaggs, like Yassir Arafat used to wear, were smoking a hookah in the far corner and shortly after we were seated a western dressed husband and hijab wearing wife sat at a table not far from ours and quieted their rambunctious young daughter and younger son.
And so, here we were, sitting in a restaurant in the Gaza strip, a few years before it would be in control of the Palestinian authority and no longer an annexed part of Israel. My two colleagues are both rather liberal Israelis. They were far more interested in keeping their electro-optics business running than Palestinian/Israeli politics. But, as I’ve written before, outside of religion and politics, there really isn’t much to talk about in Israel. We were finishing our meal and ordering some baklava when some from the hookah party came by to offer us a few puffs of the perfumy smoke. (We all politely declined.)
“You see…?” my colleague asked, “they don’t care if we’re Jews or Arabs. Real people just go about their business.” My colleagues don’t wear yarmulkas or the dark orthodox Jewish robes and hats, but no one who’s been to Israel would mistake them for anything other than Israelis. The thin, short-sleeve dress shirts and worn chinos all worn with a rather disheveled air are the hallmark of most Israeli businessmen. Still, no one gave us a second glance. The bakery sold Challah along side the pita; families ate dinner together; Arab men offered us the chance to join them enjoying the hookah; and the server spoke to us in Hebrew and English.
Even if the media is exaggerating the real devastation and despair in the Gaza strip today, it’s clear to me that things have gotten worse since that charming evening in a cheap, but delicious restaurant along quiet village streets. While there is real and justified animosity between people living in this region it’s equally important to remember that just a few years ago, people were smoking and breaking bread together. Too bad the pragmatism of my Israeli associate didn’t work out. Sure made sense at the time!