It was not long after Israel’s Second Lebanon war in 2006 that I met Avi. I was working in London at a famous ad agency on Knightsbridge, between Hyde Park and Harrods.
Before Avi started working at “the banner factory” as it was called, I was already there for half a year as a freelance designer.
On the 7th of July in 2006 it was the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings which I had miraculously survived. Exactly one year ago I was in the Piccadilly Line metro on my way to Richmond, between Kings Cross and Russell Square when a terrorist blew himself up, killing 26 people and wounding and traumatising several hundreds more, including me.
To commemorate, I had left home a bit earlier that day so I could be on the Piccadilly Line, between those same two stations again, without being blown to pieces, as a way of saying: I am alive, you bastards!
When I arrived at work I was expecting that at least some people would be talking about it, but no one did. Perhaps work is not the best place to discuss these things, I thought, but then, many more sensitive things get discussed, at least by a few outspoken colleagues. Someone mentioned it briefly, but I didn’t want to brag or play pity or anything; in fact, I never mentioned my experience to any colleague there.
I felt that in order to discuss certain matters you shouldn’t mention an experience like this; people might think you’re “biased” and won’t listen to you or think you’re sad or something.
I sort of got stuck at this company not for the work (which was utterly stupid), but because I thought there was a nice atmosphere, with this one guy John playing James Brown and Kraftwerk really loud, and a healthy amount of females to balance the otherwise sometimes male nerdy environment.
Around this time, rockets where launched into Israel from Lebanon. So not long after, in order to stop this, Israel went after Hezbollah and bombed several places back in Lebanon.
Now it happened to be, that one of these girls at work, Shiri, was Lebanese. Or so she said; her mother was, and her father was French or something. She grew up in France, and next to English, spoke French and Arabic. She was an otherwise typical London girl, following or setting the latest fashion trends, and liked to go out and giggle a lot. She and John where friends, and shared an interest in quoting articles from The Guardian out loud. About art and design, and about politics. Stupid Bush this and that, that kind of stuff. The more anti-capitalist, the better. That, and then working for one of the biggest commercial ad agencies in the world.
Then Israel and Lebanon got into a conflict.
I was sitting next to Shiri one day, when se said to me: “I can understand that people blow themselves up (in order to kill Israelis)”.
I’m not sure why she said this to me. Did she assume I would “like” this statement – that I am “naturally” on her side or something?
I didn’t mention that I was nearly killed by a suicide bomber the year before.
Nor did I mention that my Germany-born Jewish grandfather barely escaped the Nazis, but his parents didn’t and were gassed in Auschwitz, not far from the area in Poland where they were born and chased away from, and that there is a country for people like them to be safe from persecution, the place where they originate from, called Israel.
All I could utter were some vague nuances, some grey question marks regarding violence and peace.
Shocked by my apparent lack of support she ran off crying, asking for all the attention – from men like John, mostly.
From then on certain subjects were avoided, in my presence at least.
I wasn’t joining in too much on some of the social events some colleagues were interested in, like “getting wasted”, anyway. For most English I was just a quiet version of “Goldmember”.
So not long after this encounter Avi suddenly joined the company, as a developer.
Like Shiri, he had sort of a darker complexion; black hair, dark eyes.
On the first Friday’s afternoon out with the colleagues in the nearby pub, I got to talk with him.
At first I couldn’t tell where he was from as he wasn’t saying much, and if he did he behaved in a sort of a loud jovial way, making me think he was Italian or something.
“I am from the Holy Land”, he said with a broad smile with lots of teeth.
After a very brief pause he continued: “…from Israel, haha!”
When I told him my mother lived there as a child his eyes lit up.
He told me his dad was English, and that he briefly lived in Jersey with some relatives before he moved to London, initially working in falafel joints before somehow landing up with this Flash actionscripting gig.
After that, we got on to a chatting mode, similar to a Woody Allen movie, where the background keeps on changing, and the conversation just carries on.
I was living near Swiss Cottage; he was just more up north in Golders Green, known for its many Jewish and Japanese residents. He had a Japanese girlfriend.
By the time we got more chatty, it was approaching winter, and it was getting colder and wetter outside, but that didn’t stop us from continuing our conversation somewhere on Finchley Road just off my bus stop, every day.
The storm between Israel and Lebanon had also gone down at this point.
However, I noticed at work that Shiri never talked to Avi directly, but instead just conversed in “general terms”, and completely omitted her political rants in his – or my – presence.
He had told me that he actually had done part of his military service in Lebanon, but otherwise had not much to say about it. She didn’t know this, but he being Israeli was clearly an alarming thing.
She didn’t seem to be able to place this otherwise odd and jolly guy though.
He didn’t care about Shiri being Lebanese and made sort of boyish attempts at approaching her on general occasions, and she sort of shyly produced a faint smile and was clearly and awkwardly looking for some mutual ground before dripping off to cooler peeps. She wore a tiger-skinned scarf (or sometimes even one of those Palestinian scarves as she admitted “in support of”); he wore a button-down shirt and neat black shoes.
Some sort of shake-up in the upper management caused most of us to leave the company, and Avi and I moved at the same time, having our goodbye party joined together.
Not a single word about Israel had been mentioned at work anymore, but the whole situation had aroused my curiosity about the country ever more since before I moved to London.
There must be clearly something special about the place I thought, something really, really special.