You don’t have to spend too much time in Israel before you hear the expression, “Ma yihye” – “What will be?” Most of the time it’s meant not so much as a question regarding what will happen in the future but as a proclamation of what is happening right now. Such was the case when I asked the taxi driver to let me off in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood and he responded, “Nu, what will be?”
In that short refrain I heard him say the following: Neveh Sha’anan is not a place for a young lady such as yourself. Haven’t you been watching the news? Rapes. Muggings. Murders. Now, if you were my daughter...
I muttered a dismissive “Hmm...” in response to his silent monologue and hopped out of the taxi. Yet as I approached Neveh Sha’anan’s eponymous pedestrian mall, I, too, mused aloud, “What will be?” The scene that unfolded in front of my eyes resembled a Bladerunner-esque dystopia. Oversized rats scurried into dilapidated buildings and with every few steps I took, a waft of stale urine reached my nostrils.
Perhaps for the first time since my arrival in Israel, I felt something akin to fear.
I was one of the only white faces among a sea of Africans that now populate the neighborhood’s main artery.
However, it was the stares of white people – of fellow Israelis – that caused me the most disquiet. A middle-aged man with a sleazy face kissed his crooked teeth as I walked by. From behind me, I sensed his eyes pierce my skin as he continued his appraisal of me.
I breathed a sigh of relief when my companion – a fellow journalist whom I’d arranged to meet in Neveh Sha’anan – arrived. We meandered through the pedestrian mall, looking around us in wonder as if we were tourists.
Whether from Sudan, Eritrea or Ethiopia, the Africans who live here all share the goal of simply surviving. To this end, a fledgling micro-economy has evolved in Neveh Sha’anan. Street vendors boast their wares, ranging from cellphones to discarded pairs of shoes. The beginning of the road is occupied with dozens of bikes for sale at dirt-cheap prices, which might explain the rate of bike thefts in the rest of Tel Aviv.
My companion and I ducked into a local pub to get the lowdown. Numerous tables and chairs were placed haphazardly around the room and were occupied by domino players. There were only men in the room and all seemed to be of Turkish origin. The bartender shook his head sadly when we asked him for details about the transformation of his neighborhood. He lamented that he could barely gain access to his apartment because of all the sleeping bodies that line the corridors in his building just behind the pub.
We thanked the bartender and stepped outside. By now it was dark outside, yet there was a conspicuous lack of law enforcement from either the standard police or the army police – a fact that served to contradict the reports that policemen had been sent in at night to control the area. I stopped to talk to a group of Sudanese men who were hocking used cellphones. They seemed nervous to talk to me. One of them, Soi, spoke decent Hebrew – the result of having been in the country for three years.
“The newspapers say we want to stay in Tel Aviv,” he said. “This is not true. I want to go home to my country, I want to go home to South Sudan.” I congratulated him on the recent establishment of the state he called home, but my felicity was marred and mocked by the squalor surrounding us.
Further on, we met a colorful Israeli called Alon whose face was riddled with piercings. Alon was carrying a pair of sneakers that he intended to give to one of the street vendors. He explained that the previous week he had given a bike to one of the vendors and had made sure to give him the bike’s certificate so that potential buyers would know they weren’t purchasing stolen goods. We asked him why he was doing this. His answer was simple: “I cannot stand back and watch them rot like the government is doing. These are people. I am a Jew and they are in my country. They are my responsibility.” I was amazed at Alon’s kindness and annoyed at myself for passing judgment on him based on his looks.
I can’t say I wasn’t glad to be boarding the bus back to civilization as I knew it. The scenery changed quickly and I felt as though I had awoken from a dream. My visit to Neveh Sha’anan had provided me with a glimpse into the lives of a homeless people; it served as a stark reminder that not so long ago, we, too, were a homeless people.
ON THE sunnier side of Tel Aviv, my closest friend was about to give birth to her first child. For a number of reasons, emotions were even higher than what one usually expects for these life-cycle occasions. For starters, my friend and her husband had been married for close to eight years and this was to be the first grandchild for both sides. But the main reason we were so on edge was because my friend had spent a month in hospital during the second trimester of her pregnancy. Following the collapse of her lungs, she was in a comatose state in the ICU for over two weeks. I was used to chatting with my friend at least twice a day, and this had been the longest time I hadn’t talked to her since she and I made aliya over a decade ago.
She had been at my apartment the night her water broke, which was a good few weeks before her due date. Forty-one hours later, her mother-in-law and I were waiting outside the delivery room with whitened knuckles and bated breath.
I cannot remember the last time I heard a sound that caused my heart to leap as it did when I heard her baby utter its first strangled cry. A second later her mother stepped out. The three of us jumped and clapped and embraced and cried. These were tears of the purest, most absolving release: tears of exhaustion from all the waiting – beginning with the years that it took to make two into three, followed by the weeks of anguish waiting for my friend to recover from her coma and concluding with an arduous, two-day birthing process during which no one slept.
But above all, these were tears of the deepest euphoria. They continued to stream down my face when I stepped into the room a few minutes later to congratulate the couple. The nurse informed us that even though the baby only weighed a little over two kilograms, he was considered a perfect 10 by hospital standards. With her tiny bundle of miracles curled up on her chest, my friend looked more serene and more at peace than I’d ever seen her. It was the most natural thing in the world to see her and her baby pressed together as though they were a single entity.
My heart expanded. I was no longer thinking “What will be?” Instead, the only sentence that came into my head was one that Israelis favor most when responding to the above refrain: “Yihye tov.” “It will be good.”