A letter from London

Visiting her hometown, a Nahariya resident looks at the British capital with a trained eye.

UK 88 (photo credit: )
UK 88
(photo credit: )
Aug. 21, 2006 - Three women are standing outside Selfridges, London's biggest store. They are swathed in black, only their eyes peering through a tiny slit. The ends of their robes sweep up the detritus from the street: discarded bus tickets, cigarette butts, matches, remains of instant food packages, leaves and the dust of thousands of the feet that have trod here before. After a while, two men come out of the massive front portal. They are casually dressed in short-sleeved shirts, jeans, short haircuts. Their arms are loaded with store-identified bags, large boxes, parcels of all sizes. A limousine draws up silently to the curb, a uniformed driver gets out, stores the packages, holds open the doors for the women to enter in the back seat. The men sit at the front - and they glide off. It's a common sight in this part of London. The locals call it "Little Arabia"; headscarves on women are almost universal. Worn with jeans, with long flowing skirts, matching jackets and slacks, the chiffon, cotton, silk, wool or nylon scarves are a statement more than a head covering. Most of the shops have invitations to enter written in Arabic. One white-robed pedestrian, his keffiya wound round to leave the ends dangling, looks like an extra from Laurence of Arabia. On Fridays there is a significant diminution of noise. Drivers of buses, trucks, ambulances, furniture vans, vegetable carts and noisy motorbikes use that day for prayer and contemplation. Crossing the road is a hazardous ambition. On the edge of each main road, I put out a hand to whoever is standing next to me; sex, color, gender or dress is not a concern. Some do not recognize my first request and answer me in one of a dozen languages, but nobody refuses. White-haired, old and using a cane, I do not exude menace. In the time waiting for the lights to change and the slow progress from one side to the other, I get quick digests of why they are in London - to study, to become British. One, whose Welsh accent was so strong it was hard to penetrate, has a place in a music school - walking on air he was. Once on the pavement, they wish me well, often ask if there is any more help I need, and smile. It's a good deed. Makes them feel better. One has a purpose in life. Maybe I'm doing them a favor? Thankfully, I find a seat in the nearest caf . A genuine cup of English tea is a restorative to general fatigue. In the synagogue after prayers, there is a kiddush. A white-haired gentleman has achieved eighty. I congratulate him and, from my superior age status, tell him that eighty is just a number. He is the same man he was at 79. He should go on doing what interests him. Eighty comes and goes like all other numbers. The talk is all about the situation in Israel. Everyone has a family member there. Everyone is worried. Everyone is angry with the media - "always make things worse" I hear, and the papers are all blaming us. Don't they ever look at the facts? Having sat under the bombardment for three weeks in Nahariya, my opinion is sought eagerly. It's hard to describe the tensions, and the impact of the explosions which are obviously very near. The anxious finding out of where they have hit, what's been damaged, what about the casualties, can we go out for a foray to the supermarket? Do you think the cease-fire will hold? In the hotel at breakfast, the conversation has entirely veered away from Israel. There had been an alleged attempt to blow up several aircraft over different cities, and voices are incredulous and resentful: "What kind of people are these who take advantage of our hospitality and seek to destroy us?" Usually slow to anger and abuse - except at football matches - uneasiness is beginning to ferment in their minds. Normally easygoing, content in the knowledge that being British is the best thing in the world, they are sympathetic to anyone who does not have this great advantage. What can you expect? "They don't know our ways," but this is too much, this is not only abuse of hospitality but evidence of ugly, mean jealousy and frustrated urges to give them equality. The airports are seething with long lines of passengers denied their flights, their luggage, their holidays, their business meetings. But there are no accusations. Babies cry under makeshift shelters because, after an unexpected heat wave, it has begun to rain. There is a lot of grumbling but no demonstrations. Everyone tries to help. Under the bewilderment, there is now a determination that even being nasty will have to be excused in order for the nation to come back to its easy-going acceptance of differences. Now and again a remark is directed at me with understanding. "You have had this for a long time," someone says. They look at me for an explanation, but I don't like to tell them that they will just have to get used to it. So I just nod and invite them to visit me in Nahariya now that everything is quiet. But for how long?