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Why Didn’t You Tell Me You’re An Arab?

January 02, 2009 Amir is not his real name, although that’s what’s written on his business card:Taxi Amir. I never find out what his real name is. Amir’s a Muslim from Palestine but his mum was born in Jerusalem and … Read More

By / April 3, 2009

January 02, 2009

Amir is not his real name, although that’s what’s written on his business card:Taxi Amir. I never find out what his real name is. Amir’s a Muslim from Palestine but his mum was born in Jerusalem and eight years ago he got Israeli ID.

We’re driving back from Bethlehem. Amir’s ID allows him to cross the Palestine-Israel divide in the hills by Beit Jala and Walada. Amir moved recently to Jerusalem where he worked on the buses, cleaning, picked up Hebrew, and started driving a taxi round the city and beyond.

‘I saw I had to learn Hebrew very good and very fast,’ he says. ‘So I listened and asked questions and then I learned to read. I took anything with Hebrew on it and at first I couldn’t understand – I just looked at the words – but I learned bit by bit. Now I read a Hebrew paper every day.’

It’s not that easy for Amir, getting fares. The other day a woman of about 50 jumped into his cab and they were driving along and a couple of lights in he puts the radio on – just softly. It’s Arabic, though, the music that’s coming out.

‘Oh my God!’ says his passenger, throwing open the door. ‘You’re an Arab! Why didn’t you tell me you’re an Arab?’ And she’s gone without even paying the fare.

A lot of people assume Amir’s Jewish. His Hebrew’s perfect, but it’s more than just the words you use – it’s the confident way you say them that makes the difference. We stop at a checkpoint on the road from Walada to Jerusalem. Amir winds down the window and addresses the soldier: ‘Ma hamatzav achi–what’s up brother?’ It’s pouring with rain and the soldier glances briefly at me in the back. ‘Tayeret’ says Amir – she’s a tourist. The soldier waves us through.

‘You have to speak to them first,’ Amir says. ‘Then they relax. If I’m just sitting here silent the soldiers get scared and take the whole car apart. I’ve been through here with four people in my car and they let us pass. Another time, I was alone and they opened everything – it was 20 minutes before they let me go.’

Then there was the couple in their 30s. Amir was cabbing one day in Jerusalem, downtown. His Arab cabbie mate was up ahead – there was a queue and Amir told the couple his mate was first. ‘We don’t want him, he’s an Arab,’ they said. ‘We’ll take you – we want a Jew.’

It’s not easy to tell what Amir is. There are no special identifying signs. His taxi has yellow Israeli plates, and its only adornment is an air-freshener, swinging the colours of the US flag. Amir himself is dark, semitic, but not too dark. He’s 26. His mother wants him married soon – his younger brother’s a father already, at only 23. It’s just not easy finding her – the right one. But girls like Amir, they really do.

There was this woman, only 22, who took the the cab especially for him. There was a line of cabs all calling her – Taxi! Taxi! Monit! She’s strolling along and they’re all calling to her and she ignores them, every one, until Amir. This fine-looking woman spots him, stops and saunters back, bending into the window as he winds it down.

‘How much to L–’ she says.

He tells her 50 shekels. Much too much. Wants to make sure she’s getting in for him.

‘That’s cool.’ She jumps into the front seat. And they’re just sitting there talking and she’s all, how old are you, what do you like doing, where do you go? Are you married? Do you have any kids?

After a while, she says, ‘So where are your family from? Morocco, Tunisia, Iraq?’ And he says, ‘No, I’m an Arab, they’re from Palestine.’

She just sits there, frozen, arms clamped rigid to her sides: ‘Oh my God! I would have started something with you right now. I thought you were a Jew.’

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