My week in Tel Aviv

19th September 2015

70km out the road is the city on the hill. It is cooler there. You can breathe in Jerusalem. It is the centre of things – religions, cultures, disputes.

Here, on the Mediterranean fringe, we pay for natural beauty in humidity. Stifling, exhausting humidity. Not many poems are written about Tel Aviv, I suspect. I went to a bookshop to find some modern fiction from the city, and the best I came across was a collection of Noir Short Stories.

Appropriate. This is not a city of bright symbols or architectural wonder. It is one of commerce, quotidian living, fashion and getting by. They call it ‘The Bubble’ – a place that has its own DNA in the complex musculature that is Israel.

Ambling through streets – the shady side is the only sensible one in summer – I find Tel Aviv’s story not in her grandiose buildings and boulevards (they are unconvincing), but spilling through the cracks, hidden in the detail of things.

This is a shining city of feral cats. They stalk the streets by night, their elegant, gaunt profiles tightening as I approach. There is little to feed on in the city backstreets, even for felines. The refuse collection system works. I imagine their main source of food – and the reason the city leaves them to their own devices – is as a natural control of rodent life.

In contrast to the cats which have a lean, hungry look about them, the dogs of the city walk with kings. They are coddled, groomed and cared for with Parisian excess. Mutts are adored, whilst kitty goes hungry. It’s just the way it is.

I strolled through the souk at Carmel. This noisy, layered market of one ascending street has the perfumes of Arabia hovering over its packed and noisy corridors. I’m feeling in the Middle East at last. Dates, nuts, candied fruit, falafel and an unapologetic rainbow of smartphone covers pile up in front of me.

Buy me! Buy me!

The sounds and smells wash over, unannounced, until I arrive to the cheese. A great wall of pungency descends. It is the thick, warm smell of goat. Or is that my imagination filling in? Perhaps it’s just cow. I wade through the heavy sludge of odours, an assault altogether at odds with that bland mute colours of cheese, stacked in front of me, pleading to be chosen.

A close friend brings me to the Great Synagogue for Shabbat. The men are below. The women above. We all intone the same lines from the Torah. I adopt my usual ‘house of God’ stance of reverence. Hands clasped. Head bowed.

But the synagogue is not that kind of place. As the cantor chants his lines, most everybody else is chatting. Laughing. Passing comment. I realise we are in a place of community rather than a holy, hallowed place. I’m not quite sure if worship has a role here at all. It makes me giddy. Like I’m back at school and the teacher has left the room. People seem to stand and sit as they please, or act in a drunken Mexican wave.

Until, suddenly, we all stand in unison and turn to face the door to the back. Shabbat has come. We welcome its arrival.

I ask what the word ‘Shabbat’ means. My friend turns to the other men. The question isn’t as simple as it appears, and engenders another great long chats, and all the time the prayers are sung in swirls around us.

That evening we dined at a nice restaurant. My friends are French Jews who, on arrival in Israel, find communion in their Frenchness, not their Jewishness. We humans flock to what makes us different. It’s all chat. All conversation.

And then I notice a shocking thing: not a single person has ordered alcohol across the whole evening, except me. I ordered one bottle of Jem’s Craft Beer. One. Excessive I know. The idea of a whole community deeply engrossed in conversation without the aid of alcohol fascinates me. Another way of living opens its doors to me. I am witnessing choice, not abstinence.

We say goodbye, but no one leaves. We embrace goodbye again, and still no one quits the scene. In Tel Aviv, conversations linger in the air, rebounding in the alleyways until they become shadows of themselves. There must surely be hidden pain in parting.
This is a city at the intersection of organisation and chaos. It is unclear which is winning. Perhaps it is not a struggle, but rather layers of the same truth.

Cyclists have taken, en masse, to the footpaths. Mechanical diggers skirt through narrow, busy streets, missing other vehicles by a hare’s breath. Real Estate in the central chic districts is hitting Central London prices, leaving most young Israelis to rent in relative squalor.

Yet their physical comportment rises above any disorder or dismay. A fearsome, elegant beauty is so common as to be ordinary. As if Eden were just down the road, and these people have been freshly minted from the ribs of gods.

In the personal and individual expressions of online dating sites, the ordinary people of Tel Aviv make their plaintiff philosophy known to whoever may care to notice. Slogans introduce individuals with words born of a certain kind of brash maturity: Get to know me. Reach for your dream. If you must shoot, shoot fast. Dance, otherwise we are lost. Let’s have fun. 

The walls of the city are adorned with street art which is eclectic, bolchy and ultimately beautiful. I imagine that the conversation changes month to month, each one erased by the next, palimpsestically, as ‘The Bubble’ grows and moves forward.

I sit and watch in the early evening and, reading my book, can continue my guard as the sun hastily sets on a calm sea. Busy, always busy, the young men and women emerge from train stations in their military beiges and tans. They walk with purpose, and almost always alone. Focused on homecoming after a long day, or week. In time, the nocturnal cats emerge to eke an existence, under threat of hunger, by the light of a crescent moon.


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