Calibrating the Habibi Metric

Jerusalem is beautiful…and confusing. Arab neighborhoods intertwine with and overlap Jewish neighborhoods, some of them ultra-Orthodox. At quiet times you hear the Muezzin calling for prayer, no matter what neighborhood you happen to be in. Beautiful churches are strewn throughout, and we have an astoundingly gorgeous and ancient-looking YMCA (it’s only about 85 years old, young by our standards).

Sometimes tempers flare here, and the news fills with tragedy, reaction and opposite reaction, and an emphasis on sectarianism. But much of the time there is abundant mixing of peoples and cultures, with the conversation, music, and smiles that these entail. The malls, the health clinics, the markets, work places, gyms, and cafés, are all places where Jews, Arab Muslims, and Arab Christians meet. Frequently, there’s no guessing the ethnicity or religion of the person standing next to you in line at the bank or bakery.

I’m a relatively new Jewish resident in town, and moved here for the urban vibe, the cultural events and the nightlife, but find that much of the pleasure I derive from living in Jerusalem comes from joyful contact with the “other”. It’s because of that contact, and because I am a nerd, that I developed the Habibi Metric.

In Hebrew, habev means to like someone, warmly, but not romantically. In Arabic, habibi is someone you like a lot, and possibly, love. In casual use, I suppose the best translation to English would be “my friend”, or “pal”, but somehow, it’s a little more meaningful.

The first time I was called habibi was when I went to get a watch battery at the mall. The Arab watchmaker was interested in my Movado, and we chatted about it. I told him that it was a gift from my wife, and that she must truly love me if she gave me such a nice watch. He found that entertaining, and as he handed the watch back to me, he said, smiling, “Here you go, habibi.”

I was delighted. Even without my tiny yarmulke I look plenty Jewish, and I was struck by this blatant moment of intercultural, human connection, a small, glistening gesture that gave me hope for the future of this land, one that must happen thousands of times a day throughout the city.

I didn’t feel a need to measure or collect habibis until a few days later, when I was shopping at the mega supermarket, “Eternal Bliss”. For the record, it’s just a name. Shopping there does not produce even momentary bliss. Eternal Bliss caters to large families, Costco-style, and is frequented by Muslim and ultra-Orthodox shoppers. As I walked down the baking-supply aisle I saw a man and woman with a couple of kids, and they looked confused. “Can I help you?” I asked in Hebrew. They spoke only a few words of Hebrew, and all I can do in Arabic is sell a large house with a garden, buy bananas, and say “thank you”. Nonetheless, I managed to convey to them what kind of flour they should buy, and the man said, “Thank you, habibi.” Bliss, after all.

That was two habibis. It was obviously time to start measuring. Sadly, it’s possible that those two men were liberal in their use of the word. Fortunately, the quest for habibis can be defined as a quest for meaningful friendly or joyful contact, not for the word itself.

When I spent a 15-minute cab ride talking to the Arab Muslim driver about the beauty of humanity, how people are good and can get along, and how badly politicians suck, that was worth several habibi points.

When I have a nice chat with the Arab manager of our 24/6 grocery, even if he makes fun of my American accent, that’s a habibi. That is, I feel like I’m a habibi, as is he.

When I was stopped at a traffic light and had a discussion with the Arab driver who pulled up next to me, whom I caught staring at my truly-ridiculous biking outfit, that was a point for me, and for him (and one point for my outfit).

All of the participants in the interfaith Hanukkah candle lighting at the old train station in Jerusalem got points, but more importantly, they had fun, enjoyed great music in two languages, and gained needed warmth on a cold winter night from the simple goodness of the people around them.

The women who volunteer with the Arab-Jewish used clothing bank are winners. So are the Arabs and Jews (and a few European Catholics) who sit together to study Jewish and Catholic religious texts. They discuss issues such as attitudes toward Shabbat, or toward the Trinity, then share a Kumbaya Moment, complete with guitar and Asian lilt.

As I try to calibrate the metric, I’m tempted to use that encounter with the watchmaker as the standard, but I don’t think it works. It may be fine as a personal standard, but is probably too small a unit to be applied to the community activities such as the interfaith candle lighting. An event such as that produces kilo-habibis.

Even so, a single, humble habibi generates goodwill that ripples through society and begets more friendship, more warmth, more hope. I walk and ride through Jerusalem on the lookout for these interactions, and do my best to generate them. Come visit your city, and be open to the habibi moment. It will brighten your day, it will gladden your soul.

About the Author
Nathan Bigman is a writer and musician, living in Jerusalem.
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