BY DANIELLE BELLA ELLISON
Ilan the sentimental young father. Binyamin the wistful former hippie. Ahman the red-headed fundamentalist Muslim. These are just three of the cast of characters that drive the cabs of Israel. Over the course of the summer I’ve hopped into many a cab, each time for a new experience – music recommendations, family therapy, attempted religious indoctrination, and more.
Back in New York City, upon entering a cab I slip in my headphones (if they aren’t already on) and shuffle my iPhone’s music while looking out at skyscrapers and pedestrians until we reach my destination. In Israel, as Binyamin explained to me, “it’s so rude when those divas sit and look out the window and ignore you – like hello, I’m sitting right here!”
Most of my fellow Yalies in Israel do not speak Hebrew, so there’s no temptation to speak with cab drivers, for better or for worse. For me though, as soon as I enter any Israeli cab and tell the driver where I want to go, the conversation follows the same usual pattern: he asks me where I’m from, I answer New York. He asks me where my Hebrew is from, and I explain that my Mom is Israeli and I also learned to read and write Hebrew in school in the U.S. He asks me why I have an Argentinean accent in Hebrew, I explain that I studied Spanish in high school and it messed with my Hebrew accent. He asks what I’m doing in Israel, I explain that I’m here for the summer with a bunch of other students from my university, and I am doing an internship working for lawyers in central Tel Aviv.
For shorter cab rides, this interview takes up most of the journey. But for others such as the infamous Tel Aviv-Jerusalem drive (that Israelis will endure until the long-promised fast train becomes a reality) the conversation soon turns in a myriad of interesting directions.
“How do you not know this singer?” Binyamin asked me as we flew down Route 1 one sunny morning. I was embarrassed at my lack of Israeli music knowledge. He soon taught me the names of several famous singers, only for me to forget them by now. But I enjoyed the Hebrew sing-along with a man in his 60s sporting too-long wavy grey hair.
Ilan preferred to delve into my love-life, quickly picking up on a certain cynicism, which then led to a discussion about American culture, my parents’ divorce, and his own experiences. He told me that his mother deserted his family when he was a young boy, and he channeled his anger into stopping at nothing to always be there for his children. My heart was warmed as I stepped out onto the street in front of my apartment.
On a drive from Jerusalem later at night than I would have ideally liked, I soon realized that young, Irish-looking Ahman was a fundamentalist Muslim, bent on explaining to me that everything bad that happens is Allah’s will and is punishment for some sin. He matter-of-factly asserted that Americans are godless and poised to suffer for their lack of pious direction in life. Oh, and a woman’s place is in the home – what was I doing out? Thinking quickly, I said that I was a recent immigrant who left that horrible American culture – I’m Jewish, but in the process of becoming more religious, and interested in learning. Only somewhat satisfied, Ahman continued with stories and lessons from the Qur’an, which I found interesting. But then he digressed and claimed that he was glad Allah gave him his illness because he was a drinker and deserved punishment.
These snapshots are not random. Or maybe they are. After all, one just jumps into the nearest cab as quickly as possible, cringing amidst the honks and shouts from drivers in the cars behind. Upon getting into any cab, or on any bus in Israel, we call the man at the wheel the “nahag” – which means the “driver.” These individuals, and their sentimental, eclectic, and sometimes disturbing views, are all part of the fabric driving Israeli society.
Danielle Bella Ellison ’15 is in Davenport College. This summer she is blogging from Tel Aviv, Israel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.