Archive for jews
After dark, we found lots of young people at Nemat’s Ice Cream, offering fifty-some flavors from hazelnut to melon to something that tasted like spray paint (beware the four scoop minimum). Our hands oily from plates of tomshi, like crispy Persian crepes, that was where Maral took us first. Maral was from Shiraz, one of the island’s four CouchSurfers, and an immensely eager and delighted tour guide. She was studying physical therapy at a Shahid Beheshti Medical University.
There wasn’t a whole lot, but what there was in Qeshm was relaxed and (sometimes) lively. And it did beat the Hotel Diplomat. Maral’s friends and the other young women around Nemat’s were unveiled, wearing bright, patterned scarves that left much of their hair showing — but it wasn’t like Shiraz, Maral said, where she would hardly readjust her headscarf if it fell. If I had expected (the image of) Saudi Arabia in Iran, I was mistaken. Foreign is welcome: Maral was an avid downloader of Gray’s Anatomy. On her Facebook, she lists Woody Allen as a favorite artist.
She took us by taxi (twenty thousand dinar, a buck-fifty, for anywhere in town) to the Portuguese Fort built in 1507 and destroyed a century later by Persian “liberators.” On the northern tip of the island, the fort is surrounded by one of the poorer neighborhoods of Qeshm locals (as opposed to mainland workers or students). Maral classified the locals as ethnically Arab. “I ask if they celebrate Eid-al Fitr or Nowruz,” the Persian New Year on March 21. “They say, ‘We celebrate Eid al-Fitr… that’s what we’ve always done.’”
As rumor had it, the one synagogue on the Arabian Peninsula was in Bahrain. It seemed like an easy find — a sore thumb somewhere in two mile-wide downtown Manama. Earlier in the day the address I had plucked from an online forum, “Sasa’ah street,” seemed to get vague grunts of recognition from taxi drivers: near the souq, maybe. I decided not to make the trip to the desert to see the “Tree of Life”, a large mesquite that seems to spring miraculously from arid ground; instead, buzzing and sleepy from a long, bacony brunch, I went in search of the country’s Jewish roots.
A friend dropped me at the arched gate of the Manama Souq, a mostly pedestrian criss-cross of simple stands and boutiques. I forgot my phone (GPS and all, though unlikely to be helpful) — this quest would depend entirely upon the knowledge and forthrightness of passersby and standers around.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I had no idea where I was walking. After a few blocks, the bustling lights of the central shopping district gave way to construction and inauspicious quiet. I figured I’d ask around. I didn’t know how people would feel about any past or present Jewish structures, but I was leaving the country in a few hours and I had a better shot playing honest than sneaky. I greeted two older men chatting in the street beneath the pointed dome of a beautifully ornate blue and green Shia mosque. “Do you know where the Jewish synagogue is?”
The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. Except to use that ticket I’d first have to fly in the other direction — I wasn’t even there yet.
I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.
So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.
It happens. At least now it does.
Abu Dhabi, UAE
They both took off their baseball caps, and under them — yarmulkes. Dressed and bearded to the nines of Hasidic custom, these two Chabad rabbis had come via Dubai from Brooklyn to light candles with relocated Jews on a legally nonspecific floor of our Abu Dhabi apartment building (lets call it twenty-three). It was the fifth night of Hanukkah, a night that for its inability to ever fall on the Sabbath — the week’s most holy day — is distinctly holy. The rabbis resolved the apparent paradox: clearly, this day must need no help to get holier.
The rabbis, henceforth Rabbi Bob and Rabbi Khaled (for puzzling social, possibly legal reasons), led the Hanukkah blessings, touching the shamas to all five candles, now burning brightly with the green light from the minarets below. Everyone felt that all around us, there was Islam and spirited expatriatism — not as marks of oppression, but as marks of distinction: what made us run-of-the-mill deli patrons in New York now made us bakers of homemade bagels and fasters at unpredictable seasons. And with shared distinction comes a kind of solidarity, a kind of fort-like refuge. Still, we mustn’t build a moat — the hardest part is joining together without snubbing those who aren’t gathered. But with blessed juices flowing, chocolate coins clinking against the tile floor, and kids screaming encouragement at their dreidels — that didn’t really seem like a problem.