Midnight has passed. On the shared route taxi from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, a young Orthodox Jew sits behind me. I can hear him on the phone with a friend — “Yes, I’ll be in Arlozorov in a few minutes… Will you meet me there? Maybe you can bring some kugel or something nice?”
I think about the excessive amount of Jerusalem-style kugel I have in my backpack – well over a kilo – and if I should offer him some. It’s fattening and I know that left to my own devices, I would probably eat it all in a day. Plus, random acts of friendliness always make everyone involved happy. But the taxi is crowded, I can barely move, and the mere thought of rummaging through my pack and unwrapping the cling-wrapped package, getting my fingers oily and turning around… I stay quiet.
We reach the Central Bus Station, and the Orthodox Jew and I stay in the taxi, waiting for the driver to take us to Arlozorov. The cab empties and we are the only two left. The driver begins to drive through the strange, dark alleyways of south Tel Aviv. He speaks Arabic over the radio.
“Tnen fil sayara” I hear him say — “Two in the car.”
I feel the guy behind me move uneasily, and I find myself following the road intently — making sure the driver is driving in the right direction, thinking if I could subdue him if need be.
“Driver, you’re taking us to Arlozorov, right?” my traveling companion asks tentatively. The driver stays quiet, but I’ve followed his navigation closely. I know we’re going the right way.
We get out of the taxi at Arlozorov Station. I thank the driver and wish him a good night. I hope my relief isn’t too apparent.
I start walking down Arlozorov Street, towards home, when a young, blond, slightly pudgy young man turns to me.
“This is Arlozorov Street, right?”
“Yeah. Where do you need to go?” I ask with a smile.
“I’m supposed to meet some friends near the Pizza Hut? They told me it’s straight ahead.”
“It is,” I answer, “but you’ve got a way to go. It’s not very near.”
We walk together.
“That’s alright,” he answers amiably, “at least walking will keep me warm. Say, I thought Tel Aviv was supposed to be kicking at this time of night. It’s completely dead!”
“Oh, it’s just this area, and this street specifically.” I explain. “Once you get to the Pizza Hut, you’ll see a lot more people.”
“Oh, okay, cool. So are you coming back from university right now?”
“Back from university…? At this hour?” I ask, perplexed. It’s nearly 1 a.m., but then I realize that my backpack may look like a schoolbag. “Oh, no. I’m coming back from friends in Jerusalem. Where did you come from?”
“Acre! I love that place. Beautiful city.”
I think back on my time in the army. At one point in my service, I was stationed at a base near Acre, and I would often walk to the city on my free evenings. Just thinking about it, I could almost smell the sea, wet masonry and frying seafood. I remembered my walks through the old city’s narrow stone alleys, slowly making my way to the ancient docks at night. Then I remember how one time, as I walked through a predominantly Arabic street, someone threw a shoe at me. I wasn’t surprised. I was wearing my uniform.
“Humph.” My walking companion snorts in reply. “I’ve lived there for 21 years — my whole life. How much knaffeh and Arabs can you stand? I’m sick of it. That’s the good thing about Tel Aviv — all of your Arabs are contained in Jaffa, you don’t have to mix.”
I frown, and quicken my pace. We are no longer walking together, and I regret having helped him. From time to time, I look back and see him walking behind me, the distance between us growing each time I look.
At one point, I get stuck at a stoplight. As I wait for the light to change color, he catches up to me.
“Hey, thanks for the help.” He says. “What’s your name, by the way?”
I raise my head and look him in the eye.
“Ahmed,” I lie.