Going nowhere

De Haaretz, 30 juillet 2006

By Tamar Rotem

Last Update: 30/07/2006 08:53

The highways were empty Tuesday afternoon when the siren snuck up with a dull
roar, like a sleeping monster that has suddenly awoke to the smell of its prey.
Michael came down to the entrance of the building in order to welcome me.
Recently someone came to visit, and he was also caught by the siren at the
entrance. The guest threw himself into a niche at the side of the road.
Upstairs in the apartment they started to worry about him. It turned out he had
suffered a panic attack. Now, to be On the safe side, Michael makes sure to
accompany his guest to the building entrance.

He is not worried for himself. No, he is not leaving Haifa. He doesn't go down
to the bomb shelter. The idea never occurred to him. The fact that I haven't
left is not a statement,he says. I understand those who have left. But I
can't leave the house. This is my place. It's not that I'm especially brave,
but by nature I confront danger. Everyone has his own response mechanisms built
up over his life.

He is at home, that's the main thing, but life is being interrupted. He has
difficulty working On his writing. The same emotional mechanism that helps him
divorce himself from the immediate situation has been undermined, and
awareness surrenders to the violent reality, as he puts it. Michael had begun
to write a novel about Saddam Hussein's Iraq when the barrages of Katyushas
began falling On the city. When sirens begin to wail, you run to see where the
rocket has fallen. You know every missile strike is a house destroyed, flesh
seared, worry. Friends and acquaintances call. It's not a suitable time for

Does he feel threatened? He realizes that the walls cannot protect, and
something basic is disrupted in one's personal sense of security. Look at the
house. It's open to danger. Only two walls, and everything is glass. You can
clearly hear the rockets landing. We saw some of them. We watched a house
burning. When your house is trembling, the trembling passes through your body
and reaches your brain.

But there is also an opposite acclimation mechanism, he says. When there's a
siren, I don't even think of getting up, changing position, keeping away from
the window. You get used to it, you become hardened, like soldiers in battle.
After all, we are now the front.

Michael believes that as a nation we have over time developed a similar
mentality. We think that it's possible to live a normal life in the shadow of
war, or wars, to be more precise, because there are wars here in eight-year
cycles. It's denial. I am not a person who likes to deceive myself, and there
is something false in our sense of a stable home. The entire area in which we
live, the Middle East, is unstable. That's nothing new. For 2,000 years there
has been destruction and wars here. It's not related only to the Jewish-Arab
conflict, which is actually marginal.

I'm opposed to this acclimation. In my writing I want to create awareness of
the fact that it is not normal to live this way. As opposed to those who think
that a Jew can live only in the State of Israel, I actually believe he can live
much better in other countries. He is apparently referring to a debate that
author A.B. Yehoshua aroused a few weeks ago, when he leveled criticism at
American Jewry.

Haifa, therefore, seems to Michael like an island of sanity in the sea of
madness of the Middle East. This is a unique city, and I find consolation in
it. There is something stable about it - in its atmosphere, in the houses more
modest than the stone houses of Jerusalem, in the quiet compared to noisy and
crowded Tel Aviv. Michael is admired by many residents of Arab countries and
has warm relations with Arab residents of the city. There is a certain measure
of coexistence here between Arabs and Jews, he says. And the same is true of
relations between the religious and secular communities, and between veteran
Israelis and new immigrants. When On Shabbat I drive through the Hadar
neighborhood, which has ultra-Orthodox residents, and particularly On Geula
Street, which traverses it, they don't throw stones at me, they nod to thank me
for stopping at a pedestrian crossing.

Haifa stars in several of Michael's novels, foremost among them A Trumpet in
the Wadi (1987) and Refuge (1977) - but so does Baghdad, his native city. He
has often said he loves both cities. One reason for this is the water, because
for years he was a hydrologist. But nevertheless, which city does he consider
his home? He recalls Baghdad, a city by a river, in minute detail, including
the smell that rose from the river near his house. It was by chance that he
chose Haifa, a city by the sea, as his home, while he was still On the plane
that brought him to Israel from Iran in 1949.

At age 21 he left Iraq for Iran to escape an arrest warrant issued against him
because of his membership in the Communist underground. He stayed in Iran for
nine months until he was forced to flee from there as well, and then immigrated
to Israel. In the plane, around sunrise, I saw the sea and white houses, he
says. And as though the plane were acceding to my wishes, it turned around and
landed in Kiryat Yam.

Michael seems to have built his sense of home based On what he lacks here: Being
at home is the opposite of being a refugee, of the years of persecution and
forced emigration. The first days, after the landing, were my private
Holocaust, says Michael. I felt like an alien creature, blindfolded and
dropped into a place where nobody understood me or my language. I was a
stranger, lonely, without a home or an address, without relatives, with only
the clothes On my back. It's a feeling of being dwarfed. You're a 22-year-old
man and you feel retarded. Everything that had made me an educated person was

The experience of being a refugee was seared into his awareness. A few months
after he immigrated, Michael found a room in Wadi Nisnas in the home of an
elderly, childless Arab woman who adopted his as a son. He worked for an Arabic
newspaper, wrote a weekly column and began to publish his first stories in
Arabic. The Wadi was my first stable home, he says. The place that restored
my self worth. It was a kind of branch of my spiritual homeland, of the
language. I became close to the Arab population, to the point where they forgot
I was a Jew and more than once tried to find a match for me. Years later he
began to write in Hebrew, and in the process of adopting the new language, he
says, the fluency of his Arabic writing was impaired. I activated a forgetting

For him, Wadi Nisnas Symbolizes the sanity of Haifa. In the Wadi they are proud
of him. A street was named after him, Sami Michael Road. The walls of the homes
are adorned with passages from his books in Hebrew and Arabic.

I'm afraid for this island of quiet,says Michael. How much longer will it be
able to withstand the pressure?

Michael says that as in all the Arab or mixed cities, the Christian residents
are leaving - of all people, the moderate middle class that is trying to
achieve stability. A secure home, a street where one can walk. They're all
leaving the region where a solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict is not in

This year Michael will be 80 years old. For almost 60 of those years he has
lived in Haifa. There is no author who has written about Haifa as he has. Radio
and television stations all over the world ask to interview him, the
intellectual who did not leave the burning north,in the words of one
researcher. He accedes only to a very small percentage of the requests, usually
those from foreign stations. That same afternoon he was interviewed by an
Arabic-language radio station in Monte Carlo. The interviewer asked his opinion
of the war. War is madness, replied Michael from his place On the sofa near
the window. Madness.
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