A little perspective and some coffee cost 13 New Israeli Shekels in an Arab-run spot at 24 Masada Street in Haifa. Outside, hand-rolled cigarette breath accents discussions at clean, old hardwood tables with iron legs. A dusty, dark green awning covers a few meters of gray brick sidewalk across from a mural of a cartoon gorilla with an earring. I wonder if the maxim about everything in Israel-Palestine being political includes the gorilla.
Whether or not this northern-Israeli city models coexistence is up for debate. Today, Arabs comprise about ten percent of Haifa’s population, more than half of whom are Christian. There are Palestinian families tracing their past beyond 1948. The evidence of those who left Haifa asks for your consciousness. Still standing, the empty block and mortar homes play into the motions of the city.
I seek out the makhaa, المقهى, the cafe, like a college peer of mine always sought assurance in the hammam, الحمام – the bathroom, whenever the professor honed in on subtle grammar. A good makhaa is a good place to listen.
Through the glass double doors, small, square, black and white prints hang in meticulous patterns on the avocado-shaded walls; they could be well-presented Instagrams or snapshots in the stream of artifacts that insist Haifa maintain its history.
Glass mugs dangle on hooks attached to a thickly woven rope above the bar. The young woman behind the bar plucks one down and fills it with a German beer. She takes it outside to a friend and pulls up a chair to their table.
Above the pickles and the Jameson, the bar holds five chess sets and four wooden elephants. Mine seat is once-lacquered wood: back to the wall papered with eye-catching Arabic and Hebrew posters, face to the bookshelf. The shelf struggles to hold up To Find a Man, Scoring: A Sexual Memoir and A History of the Jews in Christian Spain. I misread the title of a book by an American Jew named Irving Wallace as The World. People across the planet want to read both answers and evils into the life of this strip of land the size of New Jersey.
Some people I meet here ask what I know about Palestine and Israel but my ignorance is presupposed and peripheral. Their assumption abates any anxiety about saying or thinking the “wrong thing” in Israel-Palestine – do I say shalom or ahlan to the man sizing up my caramel coffee and foreign-white skin? The Orthodox Church and the Mediterranean look in on the balcón of my apartment, past the hookahs and mint plants. “You live in Haifa now? Cool, cool. Btadkhin? Do you smoke? No? No problem.” It’s at least clear that the faint piece of land I can see in the water from the balcón is not Cyprus but Akkā, a smaller and more Arab town on the other side of the bay.
While landing here tests how well I can listen, it is also a probe into what better listening looks like. The edge of controversy is of course intriguing, even if the discussion feels like walking on political eggshells. A crafty, bohemian lamp lights the bookshelf: a bulb and a bedazzled shade on a rod bolted through a large old book, the eighth edition of a title fully worn away, for style or by wear. I keep my mouth shut except to eat my mezze.