Wednesday, November 05, 2014

For better and for worse

The experience of riding a sherut, service taxi minibus, is oddly initimate, ten strangers and a driver in a closed confined space for the duration of what can be quite a long intercity journey.

It isn't just the sitting together in close quarters, but the pervasive custom of not paying when you get on, but rather first taking your seat, then rummaging around in your purse or pockets for the fare and passing it along to the front via the passengers sitting near you, the money going hand to hand until it reaches the driver, then any change coming back the same way.

There's something of a mini-kibbutz atmosphere about the experience, the driver checking where everyone is getting off and whether he can skip parts of the route by common consensus, the passengers asking the driver to drop them off at unofficial stops along the route, the cramped seats that push people close together and unlike a regular big bus if you don't like the radio station the driver is tuned to you can't just move all the way to the back 20 or more rows away.

Like it or not, you're going to have some basic contact with the other passengers. If you take a particular route on a regular basis you are more than likely to get to know, if only at the most cursory level, your driver and fellow travellers, it's just that kind of thing. A bit like Cheers.

This Israeli institution cuts across many of the cultural and social divides, bringing together the spectrum of Israel's diverse demographic cramped together for the duration of the ride.

On my local route to Jerusalem most of the drivers and often quite a few of the passengers are Arabs.

For example last week riding home from Jerusalem our driver was a Christian Arab, his dashboard decorated with silver plaques depicting Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus. His passengers a mix of women in Jewish and Islamic headscarves, soldiers and a couple of formally dressed (by Israeli standards) male commuters. The soldiers dozed, the commuters were glued to their smartphones, the women seemed to be regulars on the route and were soon chatting about kids, work and grocery shopping while the driver hummed along to a music station playing Israeli Middle Eastern style pop and chatted from time to time on his hands free phone.

Or take one of my trips in to Jerusalem around the autumn Jewish festive season which this year coincided in part with the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha. I got on with a couple of my kids near the beginning of the route, greeted the driver and made my way to the back row where we could all sit together.

By the time we were on the highway to Jerusalem the other seven passengers consisted of two Sephardi ultra-Orthodox women in elaborate headscarves, an Indian Hindu foreign worker, a Border Guard policeman who spent the whole journey chatting in Arabic on his mobile phone, a hipsterish secular couple who spent most of the ride canoodling on the double seat in front of me and an elderly lady, her neck adorned with an assortment of goldchains with Jewish charms and amulets. Our driver was a Muslim Arab from Jerusalem.

The ultra-Orthodox women, the elderly lady and the driver were clearly regulars, the women greeting him warmly and wishing him hag sameah (happy holidays) as they entered the vehicle. As we drove along they chatted about family, where each would be for their respective festivals, how work was going, whether we'd finally get a rainy winter.

After a while one of the women took a phone call, another started to doze and the driver turned on the radio to a station playing Middle Eastern style Jewish religious music. He seemed to know much of the playlist, singing along from time to time.

The reason this particular journey stuck in my mind was because I was taking my racing car mad kids in to Jerusalem to watch the Formula One show postponed to the autumn due to the war this summer.

Our sherut minibus dropped us near the Central Bus Station and from there we hopped aboard a tram on the light rail, the destination board flashing up place names in Hebrew, Arabic and English, the compartment filled with a hodge podge of elderly women travelling home from market, tourists, race car enthusiasts and families with kids. Gliding along almost silently save for the distinctive ding ding of the tram's bell, the air was filled with the chatter of passengers, Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, French, Farsi, Yiddish and Amharic.

This is the background against which the recent upswing in terror attacks has been taking place. Terror attacks designed to destroy precisely this fragile status quo which allows life to go on despite all the politics and conflict.

We've had a decade of relative quiet since the last intifada's bus bombings made every Jewish passenger check the Arab passenger next to him for wires protuding from his clothing or bulky jackets in the heat or summer. It made me and many others sick to our stomachs to have to think that way, but with so many Palestinian suicide bombings that was the chilling reality of life.

The recent drive by attacks offer even less warning though, how do you spot a potential terrorist's vehicle until it is speeding towards you at your bus or tram stop? How can you not start to wonder about your Arab bus driver, how well you really know him?

And yet those things go completely counter to the day to day coexistence that despite the tension manages to be the norm, a utopian glimpse of what the Middle East could be, has the potential to be.

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