My friend James is soft-spoken; he talks instead of screaming and whispers instead of talking. He is rather thin and, like most of the Sudanese in South Tel-Aviv, does everything he does in flip-flops. His dark feet are thickly calloused. His head’s oval shape and slight puffing upwards of black hair make him resemble Don Cheadle. Like Cheadle, James is blessed with a warm smile. But it is not a million-dollar smile, gaping and brilliant. No—when it appears, it peers through his barely cracked lips and is often forced to settle for one corner of his mouth or another. His smile would not light up a room. It is a flickering street lamp. It is golden.
He is one of the thousands of African migrants who live in Israel, and one of the hundreds who live in the Shapira neighborhood of Tel-Aviv, by the new Central Bus Station. He is from the Darfur region of South Sudan. He fled his war-torn homeland two-and-a-half years ago and arrived in Israel shortly thereafter.
Around two decades ago, Israel witnessed its first wave of African immigration, when a pair of joint military operations with the CIA—Operation Moses, in 1984, and Operation Solomon, in 1991—evacuated thousands of Ethiopian Jews from their war-torn, famished homeland and brought them to Israel. The Ethiopians have faced severe difficulties: their Jewishness has been denied by Chief Rabbis; they have struggled to transfer their job skills into a modern economy; racism and discrimination against them persists. In 1996, it was revealed that the Magen David Adom, Israel’s Red Cross, had in practice a policy that dictated the disposal of all blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants. This hardship continues, but the Ethiopians have largely succeeded in assimilating into Israeli society. They speak Hebrew, serve in the army, and participate in government.
The Ethiopian Jews successfully escaped conflict and poverty by coming to Israel. According to James, this, alongside Israel’s pole position of openness and prosperity in the region, spurred his and his compatriots’ own immigration. “We heard about it—“, he said, pausing for a moment, “the Ethiopians, and also Israel. We knew about these things.” He also mentioned Israel’s non-Arab majority: the South Sudanese are black Africans; the North Sudanese, whose rule and aggression they have fought, are lighter-skinned and Arabic. Between 2003 and 2009, four-hundred thousand South Sudanese were killed by militias associated with the ruling North, in massacres and in resisting massacres. Israel presented a safe haven for Southerners wanting to flee, and so they came.
For the Sudanese, it has been safe. There has been no significant violence against them; and certainly none on the scale they faced in Sudan. They do not have to be worried about being woken up by murderous raids or raped. Israel has provided them with respite from the oppressive violence in their homeland—and for this it should receive great credit. Perhaps expecting more than that, then, is unrealistic, but one must, and if one does, Israel’s righteousness in providing security is contrasted by its failure to provide much more than that.
Another of my Sudanese friends, Usman—like James, thin, but far more energetic and outspoken—stands at the corner of Levinski and Rosh Pina, at the corner of the park, and wipes his brow. He runs his hand over his head and looks at the ground. He has a small head and long, angular hands. Under the urinary light of a street lamp, sweat glistens in the pores of his shaved head and between and along the sides of his fingers. The evening is muggy from the sea and the day’s heat; the air is warm, heavy.
“Today I worked twelve hours on a road in the Sun. I started in the morning at six and worked the whole day. It is a hard day of work, yes? We were eating some food in the middle. Very little rest.” For the past few weeks, he has been repairing sidewalks by the Central Bus Station that years of neglect have left mangled and weedy. I ask him and he tells me that he gets paid “not so much”.
He speaks like a teacher, trying to make me understand. Like a teacher, he gesticulates while he speaks—in a way that seems less for emphasis and more to spread out and shape his words in the world beyond his mouth, to clarify them in the air. Like the best teachers, he speaks with confidence in the force of his words and does not complain. “I understand”, he says, “I must work hard. It is hard; it is sometimes too hard for me. When I came here I didn’t think it would be easy—not at all. But I wish it wasn’t always so hard.”
For Usman, life is difficult, but he has a job and a place to sleep and is safe. Such relative comfort is not the norm. Unlike the Ethiopians before them, the Sudanese are not wanted guests of the Israeli government. They entered the country illegally, hoping for asylum. In fact, many of those who fled Sudan never even reached Israel. Unknown numbers died on the brutal desert route and at the hands of the Egyptian government that had no interest in harboring or providing for them; some were captured along the way and returned to their war-torn land. In Egypt, unlike in Israel, the Sudanese were not afforded basic rights. They lived at the whim of the government and the masses. The most notorious event occurred in 2005, in Cairo, when Sudanese refugees organized a protest to pressure the UN to aid their relocation; Egyptian authorities responded with water cannons, killing twenty-seven. Egyptian border police are reportedly allowed to fire at will at any refugees they see entering or leaving the country.
But even those who are able to cross the Sinai are not guaranteed asylum in Israel. A 1954 Israeli law mandates the detention of all infiltrators from enemy states—of which Sudan is one—until their refugee status can be determined. While they await their fate, they are imprisoned in structures like construction trailers. They are then either allowed to remain in the country or deported to Egypt. What has happened to the Sudanese is somewhere in between: though a number are returned to Egypt, almost all are granted temporary entry, which protects them from unlawful arrest and deportation—but little more. The process of obtaining refugee status and thus full asylum is long and complicated, incredibly difficult without knowledge of the language or the help of a lawyer. The immigrants are in permanent limbo. They have access to few social services. When they first arrived, Israel distributed about a thousand work visas on a first-come, first-serve basis and then stopped. It is nearly impossible to retain employment without one. James and Usman were both lucky enough to get a visa; their command of English was very helpful in this regard—most of the Sudanese know only Arabic.
Usman wipes his hands on his bare chest. Though ribs press through his skin, his torso is sinewy and tough—from the years of hard labor in Sudan and in his new home. His arms and back ripple with muscle. When a soccer ball from the court in the park behind him flies over the containing fence and lands a few feet away, he sprints over to it and, in one fluid motion, picks it up and punts it back on to the court, to the kids waiting. “I know the fathers of these children”, he says after sprinting back. “Many of them do not have the permits to work, and it is hard to provide for their family. What will these children do, when they grow up?”
Israel is the Jewish homeland. American Jews who go there expect it to feel that way—to be comfortable, welcoming, full of friends and those soon to be. Because many Jews feel most comfortable around other Jews, it is often so. And, indeed, on my previous two trips to Israel—in eight and eleventh grades—it was so. The programs I travelled on coddled us in these familiar arms, making sure every one we met coddled us similarly, making sure Israel was for us associated with pleasantry and fun. The Jewish Israeli teenagers who often accompanied us on trips were friendly and eager to meet us. The Jewish Israeli families who provided us with homestay were, too. Most of all, we were with each other, in our own bubble, floating around and ‘experiencing’ the country.
This Summer, though, I went alone. I went alone because I was there to work, not to learn. But when I think about it, I also went alone to experience and feel out the country, especially the mundanities deemed insignificant by those organized trips. I guess, then, I went precisely to learn—as opposed to being taught. To live in the country, uncomforted by familiar faces and constant hospitality and friendliness. To clear away the human forces that, although intrinsic to the character of any place, in a way also impede understanding it. My loneliness would be a sort of nakedness; I would be exposed.
There are times, even now, I wish for the invisibility of all people, aside from my close friends and family. Then, it seems, the world’s beauty would become apparent. The world is cluttered with people. I was recently in Paris, which is the most beautiful of cities, its forms expressing a consistent architectural idea (which is the most important aesthetic feature of a city); an appreciation for spacious boulevards and skies and, in side-streets, small things (for, as Benjamin wrote, ‘size is inversely proportional to worth’); a yearning for quiet and leisure (as in the meandering river and Baudelaire’s figure of the flaneur); and a certain sense of dysfunctional, that is, unproductive, external beauty. There are a great number of parks. The ironwork is unmoved and delicate at the same time, powerful and intricate. The city has many museums, but one needn’t visit them; strolling through the city is as wondrous.
But millions recognize this and all stroll through at the same time, milling, massing; then, the beauty is cluttered and clouded. Benjamin also writes, ‘Paris is invariably overpopulated’. Benjamin also writes that the flaneur is ‘at home…only in the crowd—which is to say, in the city’. I am not. My experiencing of the city as a lonely foreigner takes its ideal form as a pure encounter with form—with places and objects and absences. I hardly know the people. The people are obstacles to my direct accessing of the structures. Who would like to gaze upon an ancient marble façade, while hundreds of strangers walk by, chattering and tripping along? Perhaps I am stating the obvious by answering that I wouldn’t. This, for Benjamin, is modernity: the city overrun by masses.
Though Tel-Aviv does not compare to Paris—except in its many French—my hope remained that it would not be so. A number of axes were soon thrown in this wishful log. For one, I quickly realized how difficult it is to actually be alone, especially coming off a year of collegiate—meaning constant—socialization, of literal never-aloneness. Thought of systematically, there are four forms of loneliness: outside of ‘civilization’, alone; outside of ‘civilization’, with friends; inside ‘civilization’, with friends; and inside ‘civilization’, alone. The forms that exist outside civilization—a forest, say—are benefited by the appropriateness of loneliness to that place, which, as I hoped of Tel Aviv, is experienced in all its unmediated beauty, which roars with life. Being in the city with friends alleviates its alienating vanity, and is also happiness: the nightclubs and street life ensure as much. The final category was mine, and it contains the most painful form of loneliness; it is the loneliness most often spoken and felt, that of absolute despair. It contrasts others’ friendships with one’s own lack. The urban center’s purpose and speed throws one’s own aimless wandering and boredom into sharp relief. It is loneliness that exists in the bustling city’s ugliness and spiritual silence. And though one’s thoughts still run, they are tripped often by the scuffed curbs. Before coming to Tel Aviv, I had romanticized isolation—particularly in the ‘wilderness’—and had pursued and enjoyed it. But this was not that, and it would be lengthy.
The second issue, less emotional and more environmental, was something I found out only when I arrived: I wouldn’t actually be alone. I rented my apartment through a gap-year program, and so was somewhat bound up with them. They paired me with a roommate, whom I didn’t know. The apartment below ours would be occupied by a group of American college students it was immediately clear I was supposed to befriend. Another, more nuanced, category of loneliness is needed, then, one of being in ‘civilization’ alone, but with close contact and abnormal dependence on unfamiliar others. These were not warm relations and were always tense.
If I rejected outright this automatic association, I would invoke the despairing loneliness of the city. And if I allowed myself to become involved with these kids, I would relinquish my absolute independence and the ability to control my experience, as well as whatever mental clarity I could muster; things and will would become muddled. Within the first week, I realized that to have even a decent time in Israel, I would need to find a third way.
The memory of my first days and first interactions with my Sudanese friends is muddled by tired time. I did not know much of my neighborhood in South Tel-Aviv before coming, other than its sensational hip-ness, littered with cafes and bars. But I was whisked from the airport to my apartment and saw little. I laid my bags and went out and walked the street I came to always walk in search of food; who or what I saw slips away.
As though a spirit in the night, the city creeps up on the lonely foreigner. This is the only way they may meet. For young lovers and families, the city is a third party to all conversation and experience; they speak to each other about the city and their experiences there and it mediates their loving relations. The absolute foreigner has thoughts but no interlocutor to allow their solidification—especially when the language differs from his own, but even when it doesn’t. He can see the city’s structure at all moments and interact with it, but he does not apprehend or become a part of it at all. He is lost in the world and the crowd. In modern cities, he will not look out of place, and so the locals will not take note of his presence or ask what brings him to their country. They will not offer themselves for his articulation, either. This paradox is the paradox of the modern man who has gone too far from home: he is welcome everywhere but never welcomed.
This is what occurred for me, gruelingly. In those first weeks, whatever acclimation I achieved came from hours of walking, often back and forth, in search of mundane items like yogurt, in search of cheaper yogurts, in search of diet yogurts. I searched for streets and did not find them and searched again, and again, and then did. The wrong buses always tricked me into taking them. On the rare times I ventured forth with the American kids I was living with, I was taken to the wrong places—meat shops, observatories, and so on.
This was dispiriting. One needs spirit to enter into the city, into the spirit of the city. On a practical level, I had hours to pass between sleep and work. For the first week or so, I whiled away the time by reading archival New Yorker articles—which didn’t exactly justify my travels. And they are all about exploring the world and learning from it. I would return from work to my apartment and never leave. The Sun, too, took away my spirit—my spirit of exploration.
What can you do? Where can you go to, then? Dislocation is felt because of the eternal will towards Home. It emerges where there is no communication between a person and his human and physical surroundings that is not painful. When good fortune remains, it leads us Home always: from abroad, where you are not welcome and mute, to home, familiar and warm; from home, where you do not conform to the comfortable particularity, to the world, universal and diverse. Dislocation cannot be salved by becoming at Home where you are; to be dislocated is to be so alienated to the place and cold—unforgettably and irrevocably.
Especially in this interconnected world, there are fragments of Home in most places, dispersed by commerce, travel, and force. These can nourish the foreigner for some time: phone-calls, movies or art perhaps, reminiscent landscapes. What you can do is find them and hold onto them, like rafts. Elsewhere, the Kabbalists yearn for the reunification of the fragments, long ago shattered by the Fall; but we are always leaving home, and how else do we survive? They carry the violence of their birth with them always, but these fragments like driftwood far from shore are what keep us afloat.
Exactly a week in, already feeling adrift, I found my Home in soccer. My roommate, whose arrival in Israel preceded mine by a couple of weeks, brought me to the park down the street from our apartment. “It’s mostly black people, just everywhere, lots of South Africans; they sorta lie around and chill”, he said. “It was pretty sketch when I went—not gonna lie, I was pretty scared, but it’ll be chill with both us there”. The street we walked to get there—Levinski Street—during the day packed with small spice shops, was quiet. At one point on our way, we passed a convenience store with a single light bulb turned on, where a group of men were drinking beer and watching a talent show on television; across the street, two women in high heels and short skirts stumbled together. The street was poorly lit, but I was not on edge. The abundant lighting of the more affluent neighborhoods of Tel-Aviv only revealed crumbling paint and lamps in windows. There was nothing here to light up; there was nothing really to see, but a few shut-up shops. The darkness was comforting.
The lighting by the park was brighter but still urinary. The park’s yellowing grass, plastic play structures, and chain-link fence sprawled out behind a busy intersection, beside the local precinct. On the far side of the park sat the soccer court, surrounded by a high fence. What first caught my eye were the hundreds of people sprawled along the grass, surrounded by plastic grocery bags and empty glass bottles, surrounded by friends and wiry strays. (The grass was hardly visible.) They watched the children chasing flat beach balls down the paths that intersect the park. When a child stumbled and fell, or fought with another, he sorted it out by himself, crying; the parents, if they were there, stayed supine.
Across the street, a few stragglers lugged suitcases and rucksacks from the New Central Bus Station (the largest in the world) and disappeared into the night. A car or two whizzed by. Police cars rolled out and whined. None of the park’s residents took notice, whether attuned, or apathetic, or unaware—I don’t know. One does get the sense that a giant orb or dome shelters the park. It is warmer, more welcoming, better lit. By the entrance to the court, a number of kids pressed their round faces against the fence; they pulled the metal toward their face with their hands. They were sharing a two-liter of Orange Crush. Through the fence, they were watching the group of men playing soccer. Two of the men chased the ball into the far corner of the court and jostled for it, posting up. This ball was also flat and slid more than it rolled. My roommate had brought his own ball, which though old was round and firm and, he assured me, would gain us entrance into the game.
We climbed through a torn gap in the fence that was closer than the gate. I turned my ankle slightly on the leap. The court was perhaps fifty meters long and half that in width, with goals built into both ends and two basketball hoops on either side. When I was in Israel in eleventh grade for a semester, the high school campus I stayed at had a similar court, and my friends and I would play there often, grateful we didn’t have to chase into the surrounding brush our (numerous) errant passes. Perfect for five-a-side matches, these courts abound in Israel and elsewhere. But in American suburbia, more prone to sprawl out parks and puppies, they are virtually extinct. Those large fields demand twice as many people and far greater effort. This, combined with a general lack of interest in soccer, makes it incredibly hard to for me to play a decent game when home. Unfortunately, I love nothing more than playing soccer: the strangeness and difficulty of striking a ball with the foot; the swift interchange between players; the exhausting changes of direction. That I would be able to here, that I would now, and that fond recollection, warmed me through.
My first game, that night in late May, the air heavy and damp and still, the Mediterranean’s soft wash offering no breeze, was not memorable and has been eclipsed by all that has followed. The ball did obtain our inclusion in the men’s game. For a moment, now, I do remember. I remember clearly, partly because of the slightly racist, totally anxious remarks battered into my ear softly by my roommate, that all of the men were black, wearing flip flops and loose shirts and years, like James—who might have been among them. I also remember the sensation of my first kick of the ball. When I lay down my bones in bed each night, I feel in them their day-long yearning for rest, and a certain thankfulness. The first kick of a football is the morning twin of that pleasure. I remember the sensation, stretching muscles unused for weeks; the particular pleasure of that unnatural swing of the leg, unlike the step; the clean contact with leather; the near orgasmic moment at the end of desire and the beginning of play.
I cannot remember what the score was, or if my teammates were at all skilled, or if I even had fun. My relationship with soccer, I quickly realized, had transcended those contingencies. And it did so quickly and unexpectedly; I knew I loved it, but I didn’t know it had power such that I would come to depend on it, that it would at times be my only grace. If I had, I would have surely brought a ball with me, as all ships these days are stocked with vests. But soccer was more like driftwood. As to those fragments of Home, luck is typical of their discovery, or rather of their transformation from something known to something needed. For me, soccer is Home, everywhere, the maternal and universal womb; it is always desired. The womb is not only protection from the world, but also nourishment from and toward it. Similarly, when I was in Tel-Aviv, soccer functioned as the comfortable place in a discomforting setting in which I could grow and learn about both. This is the only way to know hard things.