We had just moved from Tel Aviv to Yafo, meaning we had essentially moved from one end of the beach to the other. The difference being however, that instead of living in a two room box in the center of one of the mediterranean’s most trendy cities, we were living in a spacious flat in a burgeoning artsy hipster neighborhood. The skyrocketing rent of Tel Aviv was chasing young couples and families away, and those who could not bear to part with the sidewalk cafes and boutique fashion designers of this sleepless city found themselves living side by side with historic Yafo’s long time residents.
I would be pregnant within a matter of months, which would soon necessitate another move, this time to the suburbs where one could find a newly built flat with an elevator AND underground parking. But it was there in Yafo that I spent the last few months of my pre-motherhood life, surrounded by Arab and Jewish Israelis, Eritrean refugees, artist galleries and greasy shawarma. In this ancient port city, where Jonah met his whale, was a life of contrasts.
If you can look past the dilapidated, crumbling buildings of Israel and separate yourself from the cacophony of pent-up conflict, you will discover its tranquil and vibrant beauty. Constant sun shine scorching your shoulders, the clear blue sky hanging over a green crystal sea, the air-filled with pungent and beautifully blended flavors fused from a nation built on many cultures, are just some of the unique characteristics that beckon people to fall in love with this place. Eventually I found myself, as many others do, in a confusing love / hate relationship with the land of milk and honey.
Running in Israel often times meant suffering through an intense airless heat, where you had to stop frequently to quench your parched throat. My summer runs were filled with fantasies of immersing myself in ice water and promises to myself that I would wake up at five in the morning for my next run. Many times, if I were running on the beach, I just kicked off my shoes and jumped into the ocean to cool off, the sun leaving me dry, but caked in salt within minutes of getting out.
There was one particular day that I had decided to run in the opposite direction, away from the beach side restaurants and bars of the Tel Aviv Namal, and towards the outskirts of Yafo, where one could avoid crowds of pedestrians and could sweat in quiet solitude. This strip of boardwalk was virtually empty, with the exception of one figure slowly moving towards me. I was overheated and exhausted, and to my dismay there were no water fountain stations in that direction. In an effort to cool off, I tucked my tank top up into my sports bra and rolled my shorts down.
As the figure before me drew closer, I thought the heat was playing tricks with my eyes. I could only make out a black, shapeless illusion. It wasn’t until we were a few feet from passing each other, that I processed what I was seeing: a woman, in a full burqa revealing only her eyes, jogging. Our eyes locked for only the briefest of milliseconds, and a few minutes later she had rounded a bend and I never saw her again. Her image though, will stay with me forever.
I have replayed this scene over and over in my mind. There’s a part of me that wishes I had given her a thumbs up and cheered her on. My mind burns with questions, with frustration, and with admiration. I realize that she was probably not the oppressed women I viewed her as, but a woman very much in control of her own choices. I wonder what she thought of me, half-naked and gasping for air, or if she even gave me a second thought. She epitomized grace and endurance. Her eyes and smell as we passed each other told she was suffering in the heat as well. She bore it though, much better than me.
When I think of this moment, my chest feels heavy and tears prick my eyes. I probably lived five minutes away from this woman, but we may as well have lived on different planets. Yet there we were, two women steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other, pushing forward in a beautiful, tumultuous storm, the pavement pounding in our ears, trying to drown out the noise and confusion around us. When I left this country a couple of years later, to finally return home, I realized that this woman had come to be my Israel.
This story has nothing to do with what we ate for dinner, other than it’s what I was thinking about while I was cooking, so I decided to share it. My little love and I ate cauliflower quesadillas and my foodie asked for artichokes, so we steamed and ate those as well. As she chatted, I wasn’t the best listener. I kept wondering what her perception of Israel will be one day, and how she would feel in twenty years, if she were to pass a woman running in a burqa.