The Party

Previously on Writing & Interacting: I was invited to a New Year’s Eve party at Movieing, my favorite café in Tel Aviv. Some friends of mine were going to be the DJs. There was also another reason why I looked forward to this party…

New Year’s Eve parties are my only shot at glam in this country. And when I say “glam,” I don’t mean fancy dresses and ball gowns. My kind of glam is more along the lines of torn jeans, glittery or shining top, high-heeled boots (just a reminder: historically, men wore high heels first) and a flamboyant jacket.

But… on New Year’s Eve, I got caught up in work stuff and had to make some important phone calls – it was Saturday, and Sunday is no weekend here.

When I checked the time again, it wasn’t 8:00 pm or 9:00 pm as I had expected.

It was 11:45 pm.

At that point, my preparation for the party sucked. I had only managed to take a shower earlier on and to put on some clean and comfy…pajamas.

It was too early for glam then (I can’t believe I just said that… 🙂 ).

Plus, I still had to go to the neighborhood park before the party because I wanted to make wishes there for everyone–you included–just before the old turned into the new.

If I ran, it would take me three minutes to get there.

I speedily drew on crooked eyeliner, put tons of glitter on my eyelids and applied red lipstick (on my lips, in case you’re wondering). Then I hid my pajamas under a huge coat and put on my park boots. It was raining, hence probably muddy out there.

A quick glance at the mirror by the front door horrified me.

What I saw wasn’t glam: I saw a clown.

I grabbed a makeup wipe and removed most of the glitter and the red lipstick, quickly. I only left the crooked eyeliner on – I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

Then I ran to the park with my umbrella and a plastic bag so I could sit on a bench under a tree near the river close to the stars and make wishes.

When I checked the time again, it was already 12:30 am on January 1, 2017 — I had had many wishes to make. The world is in a terrible state.

I could still go home and change my clothes and get another shot at the red lipstick. But I didn’t have time to spare: I still had work awaiting me for Sunday.

I resolved to go to Movieing café in my pajamas (under my coat) with my muddy park boots and the crooked eyeliner. It would be dark. Nobody would notice me. I’d be there for five minutes tops, just to hear my DJ friends. Then I’d go home.

I guess I’m a pretty poor excuse for an extrovert. I like crowds only if there is a stage and I am standing on it. But when I arrived at the cafe, it wasn’t as crowded as I had thought it would be — probably because people work on Sundays. And…everyone seemed to have noticed me. They also seemed to be happy to see me, and they said they were glad I hadn’t brought my laptop along.

At least that’s what I thought that they said. Though wonderful, the music was loud.

“I never bring my laptop to parties,” I said defensively.

(I did bring a book to a glitzy party in LA once. It proved to be a guy-magnet, but that is another story.)

I ended up dancing with everyone at the café. I hadn’t danced so freely since I was in junior high, and Laura told me that I danced like a s***. That was before I owned my s***ness. And I don’t say it cynically. I mean it.

I feel like Stephen King’s protagonist in 11/22/63 when I go back in time like that. (Unlike his protagonist, I can’t physically go back to a time before I lived–but if it were for the sake of saving the world, time travel would be right up my alley.)

One of the staff members at the café gave me a chaser. I rarely drink, and I had hardly eaten all day. I was drunk in no time, but I still didn’t feel like going home.

Only there was something else I had to do that was much more important than work: I wanted to wish a Happy New Year to Janet Reid and her community.

I pulled myself together and left the café.

Back at home, I drank some water and fixed something light to eat.

It helped a little but not enough–unless I wanted to leave Janet a comment in a language I haven’t master. As for getting any work done, it was out of the question — I’d ruin everything.

I had to tell myself the usual before calling it a night: tomorrow is another day.

***

I know  this is not an easy day for my American friends. I stand by you and send you love and blessings. <3 <3 <3

Like Angels

It’s after midnight, and I’m at Movieing, my favorite café in Tel Aviv. I’m sitting outdoors next to the heater and writing. All the other customers have left, and the staff is getting ready for the New Year’s Eve party at the café tomorrow night. Two staff members whom I consider friends are going to be the party’s DJs  — I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

They are setting up the equipment and doing a sound check, playing great music. I put my laptop in its case and join them inside. Two women in their early twenties come in and start to dance  — I’m dancing too. They are laughing and giggling and smiling at me. Then they pose and take pictures, together and separately. Their laughter still lingers after they have gone.

I go to the neighborhood supermarket: it’s open late. There I run into Ethan.

I’m not sure if he remembers exactly what happened last summer and my role in it — he was too drunk then. But he says to the cashier, “Be nice to Lilac. She is my talisman.” So maybe he does remember.

I know Ethan from the neighborhood park. I go there to meditate every night, and he likes to be in nature. He has always seemed like a well-balanced man.

Except for last summer.

When I saw him then, he was very drunk. He was holding a translucent bag with a few beer bottles inside. Walking in an unstable way, he was heading to the park just as I was leaving. And he looked like a third of himself. He hadn’t looked like that when I’d seen him last, only a few weeks before.

“Are you OK, Ethan?”

“I haven’t been eating for three weeks since the accident,” he replied. “Only drinking beer.”

“What accident?”

“I fell on my head.”

I immediately thought to myself, “I must help him.” But how? For starters, I said, “I’ll go bring you some hummus.” We have the best hummus in my neighborhood.

“Thanks.” I was sure he’d decline.

He sat down on a bench, and I rushed over to the hummus place. But when I got back, he wasn’t there, and the park looked deserted. I felt stupid. He didn’t want the food. I shouldn’t have left him alone. I took a walk in the park. Maybe he had just moved to another bench. But I only saw a homeless man lying on the ground. I left the food next to him, and he jumped to his feet.

It was Ethan.

“You brought me food.” He said. “You are wonderful.”

Then he sat down again, lit a cigarette, and opened a can of beer.

I sat down next to him. “Forget the beer. Now you eat.”

“Nobody would do that for me, come back with food. Thank you.”

He ate very little, and then he said, “I want to die.”

“I know.”

“I have nothing to live for. I’m divorced, my kids are grownup. I left a beautiful apartment to my ex.”

“I’m older than your kids, and I still need my dad.”

“We shall overcome, we shall overcome,” he sang, slurring.

“We are going to the hospital now.”

“I don’t want to go. I want to sleep on the grass and never wake up.”

“It’s not going to happen. Not as long as I’m here, and I’m not leaving. You are not well. It’s not a good idea to make a major life decision when you are in distress.”

“I am in distress.”

“I know. Let’s call your ex-wife. Maybe she can take us to the hospital.” He was still seeing her and the kids daily.

“Why call her?”

“Because she knows your medical history.”

He gave me his phone.

“You can’t imagine how many times I came over to take him to the hospital,” she said after I awkwardly explained to her who I was, “and he changed his mind in the last minute. He is a grownup. He needs to decide first that he needs help.”

She hung up.

“We shall overcome, we shall overcome,” he was singing again.

“We’re going to leave now, Ethan.”

“I don’t have energy.”

“So lean on me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“You can’t do this to your kids. But you can’t do this to me, either. Rejections are not good for my ego.” I winked at him. He laughed. “So do it for your kids, but also for me.”

He agreed to lean on me then.

“Let’s call my ex. She’ll take us there.”

“But don’t pull the I-changed-my-mind shtick on me, OK?”

He laughed. “OK.” Then he called her.

Shortly after that, the three of us were walking to her car.

“You know that he needs a psychiatric hospital, Lilac,” she said.

“I know.”

“Why is Lilac not coming with us?” he asked as they got into her car. She didn’t reply, but she asked me not to go, which I thought was wise.

He was smiling and waving at me as they drove away.

***

Ethan has regained all of his lost weight, and he looks good. He also has stopped drinking.

Sometimes it is so easy to make a huge difference in someone’s life. We only need to care. Like angels.

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part III: Danger at Sea

Marwan’s place of employment in Ankara turned out to be a sweatshop. He left as soon as he could and taught English in private schools. But when the schools closed for the summer, he was on the brink of starvation (and hid it from me). It was time for him to move on. This is his story:

I wanted to leave Turkey but couldn’t afford it. Then my uncle left Syria with his two daughters, ages three and five. “Get ready to leave,” he said when he arrived in Turkey. “I’ll take you out of here.” I only packed some clothes. There were no goodbyes or farewells.

We stayed at a hotel in Marmaris for a week, waiting for the smuggler’s call. We were nervous the whole time. The plan was to take a fast boat: it’s safer for children. But the smuggler was arrested. The only way out now was a rubber dinghy.

A few smugglers came over to talk to us, but they had overloaded their dinghies. This could mean death at sea. We were running out of time. It was the end of the summer. Soon the weather would get worse; roads would be closed.

Then we found a smugglers’ middleman from our hometown. He guaranteed our safety. “Thirty-six people on the dinghy,” he said. That’s a good number.

We took the bus to Bodrum with a few other boat passengers—many left Turkey illegally from there. Upon our arrival at the bus terminal, policemen took our passports and ordered us to leave Bodrum immediately.

Everybody freaked out.

I stayed calmed and told them to follow my lead. I bought a bus ticket to another city, and so did they. When we got on the bus, the police gave us our passports back. Now I had to convince the bus driver to let us off at the first station without raising his suspicion.

If we didn’t get back to Bodrum in time, we’d miss our boat and get stuck in Turkey.

I quickly befriended an English-speaking Turkish guy (my Turkish is poor). “Are you in danger?” the guy asked.

“Not at all,” I replied. “Our friends are picking us up at the next station.”

The guy then convinced the bus driver to stop for us. There were taxis nearby, and we went back to Bodrum. We contacted our middleman, and he instructed us to meet him in the mountains. But we were late; the taxi had gotten lost. When we finally arrived, he took us to a restaurant where the big smugglers hang out. It was already 9am.

Our smuggler wanted to take more money for my nieces: usually there’s no charge for kids. Then my uncle rushed to buy us life-jackets. Soon it was time to leave. Taxis arrived one by one, taking a few people at a time, not to raise suspicion. We had to wait on the rooftop of a hotel in downtown Bodrum with the rest of the passengers – mostly women and children.

After five hours’ wait, around 3am, the smugglers arrived with the taxis again and took us to a high hill. Turkish men told us to follow them, screaming Yalla (“come on” in Arabic).

The moon was full, the weather was clear, we felt safe.

We walked for 1.25 miles. I held a newborn baby in my arms. No flashlights were allowed. When we arrived at the shore, people filled the rubber dinghy with air. It was 4:30am when they were done. The smugglers called out for the dinghy driver to steer the boat. No one responded. I asked in Turkish, “Where is the driver?”

“We don’t know,” one of them replied. “He should be here already.”

They kept calling out for him, and then they tried to convince me to drive the boat, saying the police were coming.

I couldn’t take such responsibility.

They kept pushing me.

A fight was about to break out. Children had started to cry; the tension had increased. One of the smugglers took me aside and said repeatedly, “Drive the boat. Do it,” and I kept saying, “No, I can’t.”

He tried to hit me, but his partner stopped him. Then the driver showed up. We carried the dinghy to the water, and everybody went on board. The sea was calm at first, but it became stormy as we moved away from the shore.

It was pitch black. I could hear my heart beating. I was sitting on the right edge of the boat. If something happened, maybe I could jump out in time before the waves came crashing over us. Everybody seemed paralyzed. It was overwhelmingly crowded, and I couldn’t move…I felt powerless!

After arriving safely in Greece, Marwan traveled to Sweden and applied for asylum there. On the way to Sweden, he and his uncle and nieces had to sleep in dripping-wet tents for refugees and had to walk long distances in the rain with the children.

In October 2016, Marwan is going to participate in a show at the Royal Theater of Stockholm and tell his story.

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part II: Escape from Hell

(Click here for My Syrian Soul brother, Part I)

“Your brother is in danger,” Lara said. I knew she was referring to Marwan.

“What happened?” I asked. “Why didn’t he tell me himself?”

“He didn’t want you to worry about him; he is protective of you. The regime slaughtered his uncle’s whole family, and now they want to draft Marwan into the army to kill for them and to risk getting killed himself. He must leave Syria immediately.” I had been trying to convince Marwan to leave ever since he unblocked me. Now he had no choice.

“I’ll open a gofundme for him,” Lara continued. “He has to get a passport and a ship ticket to Turkey, and it’s costly there.” Then she added, “Marwan and I talk every day. When he arrives at Turkey, I’ll fly over there to marry him…we are in love.”

Lara had never seemed very stable to me, so I didn’t pay too much attention to her wedding plans. I resolved to deal with that later. I felt in my gut that Marwan had to leave Syria ASAP, and no one donated a dime to her gofundme.

Two close friends, Maria Dangelo and Assor Elkayam, had offered to help. They’d met Marwan through me, and they loved him as well. All of us were in a tight situation financially, but we were determined to help Marwan.

Only it’s impossible to send money from my country to Syria. And American friends had once told me that it wasn’t that simple for them, either: nobody wants to be on Homeland Security’s radar.

“I was once married to a Saudi man,” Lara said. “I can send money to Arab countries, no questions asked.” Still, we were relieved when Marwan received the money.

He got his passport a day before it became impossible for men his age to get one. But the regime had closed the maritime border with Turkey to potential soldiers. Marwan had to forget about the ship, find a smuggler, and escape via ISIS’ territories.

For a few weeks, he could hardly sleep, and he rarely left his parents’ apartment for fear of getting caught by Assad’s soldiers. Sometimes when I talked to him on Viber, I heard a shell exploding nearby.

“I’m used to it,” he said casually.

Meanwhile, he had no prospect of finding a job in Turkey, and he couldn’t stay at his best friend’s home — it was already crowded there.

Assor, Maria and I asked our Turkish FB friends to help Marwan. Nothing came of it.

“I’ll just go to Ankara and be homeless until I find a job,” Marwan said.

“No brother of mine is going to be homeless,” I said, “and Ankara is freezing cold in the winter. You could die.”

I befriended Elvan, a Turkish FB friend of Marwan. He looked for a job for Marwan but said a few days later in desperation, “I can’t find anything for him. They hate Syrians here.”

“If people meet Marwan in person,” I said, “they’ll change their minds.” Then I added with chutzpah I didn’t know I owned, “Maybe he can stay with you for a couple of days.”

“That’s impossible,” Elvan said. “I have a wife and kids.” (Too bad he forgot to mention that to the women he pursued on FB.)

Nevertheless, my pushy suggestion seemed to work out. “I found a job for Marwan in a bakery with a sleeping arrangement,” Elvan announced. “But Marwan has to leave Syria now, or he’ll lose the job.”

On the following day, Marwan bought an airline ticket from Lebanon to Turkey. It was his mom’s brilliant idea. That way, he could travel to Lebanon in an airline bus with the airline stuff instead of escaping with a smuggler.

It was time to talk to him about Lara’s plans. “Are you in love with Lara?” I asked.

“What?” Marwan cried out, appalled. “She could be my mom. Her son is older than I am.” (Unfortunately, it isn’t considered as appalling when men behave like Lara.)

Two days later, Marwan called me from Turkey. He told me that at the border with Lebanon, Assad’s soldiers stopped the bus. They ordered the guy who was sitting next to him to come with them and join the army.

I sent up a prayer for that guy and celebrated Marwan’s newfound freedom. Lara blocked me after I told her to treat Marwan only as a friend – he wasn’t even twenty-one yet, for crying out loud. And I blocked Elvan when he told Marwan to use women in prostitution.

I will always be deeply grateful to both of them for all the good that they did, but I won’t tolerate their harmfulness.

Marwan’s troubles finally seemed to be over. I had no idea then how soon I’d be worrying about his safety again.

***

(Click here for “My Syrian Soul Brother, Part III: Danger at Sea“)

My Syrian Soul Brother, Part I

Marwan blazed into my life like August sun on a winter day.

“I’m from Syria,” he wrote in a chat on FB after he thanked me for accepting his friendship request. “Where are you from?”

“We are not supposed to be friends,” I replied. Then I told him.

“I don’t care,” he said. And that was that. What he didn’t know was that for months before we’d met, Syria had been constantly in my thoughts and prayers.

We talked about meditation and 3rd eye activation — his best friend had found me first on a New Age FB page. Marwan told me that they were taught that my people are monsters. I told him that it wasn’t that different on my side of the woods.

Soon he shared personal information with me. He was nineteen then, and I loved helping him, like a big sister. Sometimes Marwan and his best friend disappeared from FB because the regime cut off the internet connection. I was always relieved when they came back online.

One evening he wrote, “They are bombing my village.” And he went offline.

Staring at my computer screen helplessly, I didn’t know what to do next. Then, for the first time in my FB life, I asked people for help. “Please pray with me.”

The next day, Marwan showed up again and wrote that the bombing had stopped.

I was greatly relieved.

I thought that it was all over.

I was wrong.

“Now they are going to massacre us,” he wrote, then he left to embrace his parents and siblings.

He showed up one more time, briefly. Assad’s thugs had already slaughtered his uncle and his uncle’s wife and kids, half a mile away from his home. “They are getting closer…I will probably never see you again, sister. I’m so happy that we met. I love you.”

It was the Holocaust all over again.

For three days after the bombings started, I hardly slept or ate. I spent hours in the park, my sanctuary, praying in great dread.

At some point, I had to accept that the worst probably had happened.

I was never as grateful as when Marwan showed up on FB again: the massacre was over, and he had survived.

Then his best friend moved to Turkey. I planned to talk to Marwan about moving there ASAP, too. But our next chat was cut short. I resolved to bring it up on the following day.

On the following day, he blocked me.

His best friend blocked me as well.

Mutual friends who’d met Marwan through me were also blocked.

Clearly he was in danger, and it wasn’t safe for him to be in touch with westerners. I turned to activists from all over the world, who hated my country but cared about the Syrians, trying to find out what had happened. I followed every piece of information in alternative Syrian news. Hardly getting any sleep, I was in the park every night, pacing back on forth. Praying.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months.

Marwan had told me once that many Syrian friends of his were killed, yet their FB timelines had stayed intact like epitaphs, and their posts still showed up from time to time in his newsfeed… Unlike those of his lost friends, none of his posts showed up in my newsfeed anymore, but I was afraid I’d lost him forever.

Then, I remembered something. We had one more mutual friend – Lara.

“He didn’t block me,” Lara said confidently when I told her that he blocked all of us. “I can still see his timeline.”

I was sure she must be mistaken.

“I can still see it too through others’ FB accounts,” I said. “He has posted nothing new since I talked to him last.”

“He did post something new yesterday,” she insisted. He definitely didn’t share it with the public.

Later on I learned that Syrians were being taken away from their homes by the regime, not to be seen again. The assumption was that “foreigners” posing as FB friends — were actually spies of the regime. That’s why Marwan had to block us.

Lara left him a message from me. He unblocked me immediately, and we were inseparable again. Of course I didn’t know then how instrumental I was going to be in helping him to get out of there.

Sometimes when things work out in such magical ways, like they have with Marwan, I feel as if life has turned into the last episode of Lost. Or maybe it’s love that transcends everything.

(Click here for My Syrian Soul Brother, Part II: Escape from Hell)