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01.11.2018, Jamal Tuschick

Reconnecting the Middle East in Berlin - Mati Shemoelof and Hila Amit Abas, the initiators of this event, are two Arab-Jews who were born in Israel but moved to Berlin. They write in Hebrew, which is the language they grew up with, but not necessarily their mother-tongue or the native language of their parents. As Jews from Arab and African origins they were required to leave their “Arab” parts of their heritage behind in order to be part of the Israeli melting pot. More than 100 years ago in the Middle East, Jews and Arabs and other ethnic/religious groups lived in a fruitful dialogue and were mentally, culturally, spiritually and physically connected. After the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, the two World Wars and the consequential rise of Jewish and Arab nationalism, Jews and Arabs became disconnected. We lost our dialogue. In the event “Reconnecting the Middle East in Berlin” we will not only revive this lost dialogue through literature, music and performance. We will also talk about this loss, what was lost for our families, the tales that will stop with the generation of our grandparents. Writers from all over the Middle East and Asia, both, Israelis emigrating from Islamic countries, Iran and North Africa, and Arab Immigrants from the same countries will sit and read their works of poetry and fiction together. Berlin gives us, Jews and Arabs, a rare moment for a lost encounter that can no longer happen in the countries of our origin. Living together in exile in Europe, we will transcend and rise above our national identities and hope to create a new typography of words to redefine our mutual existence. Performers: Mariam Rasheed (Egypt), Abdulkadir Musa (Kurdistan), Mati Shemoelof (Syria, Iran and Iraq), Hila Amit Abas (Syria and Iran), Zehava Khalfa (Libiya), Hassan Abul Fadl (Syria) + Mevan Younes (Kurish) - (Buzuqi) as Part of the Berliner Oriental ensemble.

Hila Amit Abas

A fragment from the short story Orange Groves (from the short stories collection Moving on from Bliss, Am Oved, 2016)

And one Saturday in winter, a few months later, when only vague memory of the figure of the girl remained, the gates of the orange grove were opened and wobbly tables were set out, covered with pale blue or white cloths and upon them crates of citrus fruits for sale. The women of the houses among the groves stood and packed oranges and tangerines, grapefruit and lemons into bags, at prices even lower than those in the market. For a number of Saturdays they stood there, the women, and only one man, tall, in rough jeans and a fashionable gray jacket circulated among them, supervising the sellers and also the Jewish buyers, residents of Jaffa D1 and the housing projects in Bat Yam, dragging empty market bags with wheels, bargaining, leaning over the tables, groping lemons and tangerines, examining the merchandise.

And on the days of this improvised market all the fears and the anxieties and the sullen anger disappeared, and the children of the neighborhood were sent to fetch the fruit on their own. On the many warm, fine days of the Jaffa winter, juice stalls were set up on the other side of Machrozet street, next to the corner of Pa’amonim street, and fresh juice was offered for sale, squeezed in household squeezers and served in disposable plastic glasses. ‘Five shekels a glass!’ shouted the boys. ‘Vitamine C, vitamine C!’ They called and hustled in a little commotion far from the main streets, a neighborhood commotion which repeated itself every year without variation, except for when it was outdone by police raids, and demolition orders, and nocturnal shootings, and the activities taking place in the heart of the orange groves and the crime dens of the Abu Saif family.

And Adele pads five floors down in furry pink winter slippers, in her pocket a twenty shekels note, and repeats to herself: five oranges, two kilos of tangerines, one red grapefruit, and steps into the street and passes between the stalls, adopting the airs of a housewife: examining every orange and tangerine, inspecting the prices written on cardboard notices, scanning the faces of the sellers, passes from table to table, and the desire to please her parents drives her to seek out the finest fruits. She steps between the stalls, touches the fruit and dismisses it, until she encounters a familiar face, a broad smile and sharp eyes, which examine her from head to foot.

‘Can I help you?’ inquires the seller, not taking her eyes off her for a moment, fixing them on her and recognizing her. A questioning and accusing look, malicious but pleasant, direct, and Adele is confused, alarmed, excited and drops her eyes. ‘Oranges,’ she replies, ‘five oranges.’ And the girl stands her ground, not moving an inch. ‘What’s your name,’ she asks her and Adele keeps her eyes on the ground but steals a glance. The question is asked with charm, playfully and curiously. And she answers her: ‘Adele, I live here,’ she points, ‘right opposite you.’ The girl nods, takes out a plastic bag, hands it to her, and Adele chooses the oranges one by one, feeling them, turning them round and inspecting them like she’s seen her mother doing dozens of times, until the girl suddenly takes hold of her right hand, places it on an orange on top of the heap and says: ‘Here, here’s a good one for your mother.’ And Adele, obedient, picks it up and drops it in the bag held out to her and mumbles a low thank-you between her lips. And the ritual continues in slow silence: Adele puts out her hand, searches, and the seller stops her with a light but determined touch above different orange each time, until the five most golden are in the bag.

‘Anything else?’ asks the seller with a smile, and Adele presses her toes down in her slippers, shifts her weight from right to left, hesitates, blurts out a question and immediately feels that she has gone too far – ‘What’s your name?’ – emphasizing the ‘your’, and immediately falls silent, as if not anticipating an answer. ‘Tahrir,’ the girl replies, ‘my name’s Tahrir,’ and Adele nods her head and says nothing. The orange seller presses her: ‘Say Tahrir, say it.’ And Adele raises her eyes, sweat tricking down the back of her neck, and also between the fingers buried in the left pocket of her trousers and crushing the banknote there. ‘Tahrir,’ she says, ‘a pretty name,’ she adds and takes out the banknote and hands it to the girl. Their hands touch again, and the change is doled out coin by coin, and she says goodbye and turns to go home.

And already after a few steps she turns and goes back and stands facing her, and with renewed strength she says clearly: ‘I need two kilos of tangerines too and a red grapefruit.’ And Tahrir nods, silently holds out another bag with a merry, amused look. ‘Jamila inti,’ says the girl stretching her hand out over the fruit and stroking Adele’s cheek, and she blushes like a little girl. ‘What did you say,’ she asks, and Tahrir gently strokes Adele’s hair, ‘Pretty, I said you’re pretty.’ And the embarrassed Adele passes her hand over the pile of tangerines, reaches out with her right hand to pick one up and drop it in the bag, and Tahrir clucks her tongue, shakes her head, ‘No, not good’ and Adele goes on searching, takes hold of another, and again the shake of the head and the clucking of the tongue, and her hand hovers questioningly over the fruit, asking for help and guided by Tahrir’s long fingers, and seven tangerines are collected and tied in a bag. Adele’s hand reaches out again with the rest of the coins, her fingers almost refusing to give up the coins and thus bring to an end this moment, what has happened between the two of them, and suddenly the bearded man in the jacket appears, stands behind Tahrir and murmurs: ‘El-kull kwayse? Esh bida hadi el-bint, aktar min nus se’ah mawjuda ma’ak, bitjanenek?’2 he asks and looks at Adele with a neutral expression. ‘La, kwayes, tfakker ktir, tokhod el-wakt,’3 she replies and looks into Adele’s eyes when she places the change in her hand. ‘You only need a grapefruit now?’ she asks in Hebrew, and the man walks on, continuing his inspection. ‘Yes, a grapefruit,’ murmurs Adele, and the exchange takes place, and the man yells loudly: ‘Yallah, halas, we’re closing’, and yells ‘Shabab, ya shabab.’ In an instant all the sellers pack up their merchandise, boys appear in the entrance to the courtyard, emerge from the gate and begin to clear away the crates of fruit, the tables. And Adele looks, she doesn’t budge from her place when the stall in front of her closes down, and a pimply youth come out of the courtyard holding a baby and hands him to Tahrir, and she carries him on her hip in that practiced way and turns toward the orange groves, waving her free hand at Adele, passes the boys with their loads and recedes into the distance. Everything happens quickly, within a few minutes the citrus fruit has vanished, and only Tahrir’s back is visible and also the smiling baby on her hip, who looks back at her. Adele takes a hesitant step towards the courtyard, she wants to go in and even to be shut up inside, but with a metallic creak the gates slam shut.

1      Poor residential neighborhood located in the southern part of Jaffa, Tel Aviv.

2      Is everything alright? What does that girl want, she’s been standing there for more than half an hour, is she driving you crazy?

3      No, she’s alright, she thinks a lot, takes her time.

Dr. Hila Amit (b.1985, Tel Aviv) is a freelance researcher, Hebrew teacher and author. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London. Her first fiction book, Moving On From Bliss (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 2016), was awarded the Israeli Ministry of Culture Prize for Debut Authors. Her academic work focuses on Israeli Studies, diaspora studies and queer theory, and her first non-fiction book, A Queer Way Out (Albany: SUNY, 2018) deals with Israelis in the diaspora. She was awarded the ECPR Joni Lovenduski Prize for best dissertation in Gender and Politics in 2017. She is living in Berlin since 2014.