Back to Israel: Recall what's foreign

When you live in a foreign place, it can become home. You forget how foreign it is.

Then you go to another foreign country, only to discover that it doesn’t seem so foreign. And you realize that the place you live actually IS extremely foreign.

That’s what happened to me during the last week, when I toured Germany to read from my third Palestinian rime novel THE SAMARITAN’S SECRET (just published by CH Beck Verlag as “Der Tote von Nablus.”)

I was in Munich's central railway station when I spotted in a pastry shop that Germans spell pretzel with a B (“Brezel”). I felt a little blown away, as though I’d been living a lie all these years offering my son “pretzels.” But that’s as foreign as Germany got. Otherwise, this Welshman felt right at home there.

Right off the plane on my return to Israel, however, the country which has been my home since 1996 and where I’ve grown accustomed to the way people behave, the foreignness hit me anew.

Actually even before that. The fellow in the seat next to me on the flight from Frankfurt kept talking to me – Israelis have a way of talking a lot and they can also be rather clueless about my oh-so-subtle signals that I’d rather read my book. While I was eating, he reached over and took part of my bread roll with a smile and gentle touch of my forearm. (Bread is something you share in Middle Eastern meals, although it usually applies to pita and flatbread, not to tiny airline rolls. This was pretty extreme space-invasion, even for a Middle Easterner, but the reassuring friendly gestures while he was taking advantage of me were very familiar.)

Then in the airport, the dimensions of personal space shrank from the yard kept by Germans to an elbow-brushing, back-nudging Middle Eastern minimum. I smiled, because the Tel Aviv airport is very flashy and new – you could be anywhere in the world. But it’s most definitely not the unflustered calm of Dresden airport, where I boarded my first flight of the day.

Arrival in a “foreign” country means a lot of things that’ll sound deeply negative – or at least they’ll sound like I’m being negative. The shoving and noise and the passport lines where people don’t actually wait in line but prefer to edge around you. But I’m not entirely negative about them. I like it (mostly), because I enjoy being an outsider. To be sure, I don’t think I’d like it much if I looked around and thought, “These are my people. This is my culture. This is ME.”

Then, I expect I’d want us to be more organized, more respectful of each other, less suspicious, more…foreign.

It struck me that “foreign” countries are simply the ones where things aren’t even remotely fair. That’s why everyone at the Tel Aviv airport hovers over the baggage carousel, shifting from foot to foot, edging in front of others closer to the bags. It suggests an absolute fear that the bag never will come and, most of all, that if all the bags happened to arrive all at once you must be the first one to grab yours and get away before the other suckers. Life in a “foreign” country is a zero-sum game, in which someone else’s success or happiness comes somehow at your expense and must be envied, hated, usurped.

That’s not a German quality. Germans have a sense that there’s some degree of fairness in their society and it makes relations between them less devious and Machiavellian, less on the make. They drive fast, but they don’t think someone else driving fast is attacking them on a macho level, signaling superiority and disdain for them, and, thus, respond by semi-subliminally trying to run them off the road.

So here I am, back in Jerusalem, back to being a foreigner.

Though I shouldn’t forget that at least Israelis spell pretzel with a P.

(I posted this on International Crime Authors Reality Check, a joint blog I do with some other crime writers. Check it out.)

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Comment by I. J. Parker on March 26, 2010 at 3:54am
Nice. Aren't Brezeln a typically Bavarian specialty and not to be confused with the thin little snack items offered here? A Brezel is a meal.
And quite right about the yard of personal space, though Bavarian beer halls can get pretty cozy.

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