French Hill, Jerusalem – “Erev Tov,” I said hesitantly, my hand on the open windowsill of the white cab. “I’m going to the Germany Colony.”
“Ok,” replied the cab driver in Hebrew, as he waved me into the car. He was in his late 20s with receding black hair. Parenthesis-like smile lines framed his face.
“How are you?” I asked, searching the rearview mirror, dashboard, and ashtray for ornaments that would signal his religion or language preference.
“Good,” he smiled, bobbing his head to the side, and shifted gears.
“Good, I’m going to Rahel Emeynu Street.”
“Ok,” he smiled and nodded his head again, tilting it toward his right shoulder. We lapsed into silence, cruising through the Jerusalem evening, past the Old City’s walls, a view of the Dome of the Rock jutting out over the Muslim Quarter, past the New Gate and to a stop at the Jaffa Road streetlight. The cabbie pulled a tin of candies from his front pocket, ate one, made to return the tin to his pocket, but then asked (in Hebrew), “Would you like one?”
I smiled. I usually don’t accept candy from strangers unless they ask three times, but took one and replied, “thank you.”
I looked at the driver again, trying to find some confirmation beyond the stereotypical generosity, but there wasn’t anything there to help me. So I just asked him Arabic, “Do you speak Arabic?”
“Yes,” he replied in Arabic, smiling, skeptically.
“Can I ask you a question?” I continued. He seemed like an affable guy, and I thought it might be my big chance to crack the code.
“Please” he said in Arabic.
“I’m having a problem. When I enter a cab, I don’t know whether to say “Boker Tov’ or ‘Sabah al HHear.’ Is there a way I can know whether to speak in Arabic or Hebrew?”
He laughed and pointed to a little white sticker with blue Hebrew writing above his safety belt. “Look for the driver’s name, it is written here.”
“Ahh, usually I look for a David’s star or a hamza,” pointing to the mirror. “Or I’ll listen to what music is playing, but it is hard to know.”
“Listen, 80 percent of the cab drivers are Arab. Unless you’re in Rehavia or the German Colony or a place where there are only Jews, most of the time he’s an Arab. Sometimes, drivers wear a kipah,” he explained as he patted his head. “They’re scared and they don’t want people to know; maybe they won’t want to get in.”
He shrugged and I smiled and shook my head. “What a strange place.” A moment later I called out “Allah ya’tik al afya,” and he pulled over.
We shook hands, “What’s your name?”
“My name is Ben.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“Nicer to meet you. See you, in’sha’allah.”
So, this morning, running late, I hopped into a cab and blindly launched into Arabic with the driver, a middle-aged, tan guy with black and silver hair. As I said, “Good morning, I’m going to Agron Street,” I noticed that he had a black kipah resting on top of his head.
“Ok, come on,” he replied in Arabic, not missing a beat.
“Let’s use the meter,” I continued.
“Ah, why don’t we say 20 Shekel?”
That is five shekels less than what the meter would cost (four Shekels is a dollar); I enthusiastically agreed. Something was strange, though. We were speaking Arabic, but he was wearing a kipah and wearing shorts.
“Where on Agron Street?” he asked in Hebrew, enunciating each syllable.
Tired and ambivalent about taking a principled Arabic language stand, I told him where, in Hebrew. We chitchatted a little more; he asked me where I was from and what I was doing here, and I explained, all in Hebrew.
“But you speak some Arabic, no?” He continued. “You spoke to me in Arabic.”
“Yeah, I speak Arabic. Where are you from?” I asked, trying to determine if this was a well-disguised cabbie or what.
“I’m from Iraq, we’re Iraqi Jews.”
“And where were you born?
“Here, in Jerusalem,” he stated emphatically. “I was born here, we all lived here, all the Jews from Iraq. I live in Pisgat Zeev now. I grew up here on that street” as he pointed out my window.
“And you speak Arabic?”
“Of course!” He exclaimed. “We grew up speaking Arabic, with our family. Look, we used to be friends,” his voice rising. “We would go to each other’s houses and weddings and we would visit one another,” he lamented. “All the time, we would go to Nablus and Ramallah. We would just drive there. We would shop there.”
“What about now?”
“No, we don’t see each other anymore,” he shrugged. “Sometimes we ask or hear about this one or that one, but everything changed. It is a mess.”
“From 1988, the generations – not just them, but us too – they’re filled with hatred. Hatred. We were friends, but not this generation,” he said as he shook his head.
“Have you visited Iraq?”
“No, my parents lived there, a long time ago. The Americans, you don’t like the Iraqis.”
“How do you mean? Because we went to war or because we want to leave?”
“You don’t deal with them well. You kill them.”
I’m much better speaking about Iraq in Arabic than Hebrew. As I considered a response, he asked, “Where are you from in America?”
“Pittsburgh, it is in Pennsyl – ”
“Pittsburgh! I know Pittsburgh, I was there.”
“Really? When were you there?”
“I took a Greyhound trip from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles in 1990. Three days we were on the bus! We stopped in Pittsburgh, for an hour. We had a rest. I went outside of the station and walked around and looked around.”
“It’s pretty, no? The rivers downtown and the hills.”
“Yes, I took pictures. I remember there was a [cable car], like at Masada, that goes up the hill. I just showed the pictures to my son a couple of weeks ago,” he said with a big, nostalgic smile.
“That’s great! Wow, three days on a bus. That’s a long trip.”
Laughing, “Yeah, it was long. We started at 2AM on one day and didn’t finish until 6AM three days later. And then we had to come home early because of the war. They told us all to come home because of the war.”
We pulled up to work, “this is good, here, thank you. What’s your name?”
“My name is Ben. Nice to meet you, Shabbat Shalom,” and we shook hands.
Smiling, thinking about the incline in Pittsburgh, perhaps, Zion said, “Yes, Yes, Shabbat Shalom, see you.”
A few more pictures from the Old City: