She scurries across the floor, using my name as a kind of catch-all description of her current feelings: happily and busily moving from toy to toy, smiling wide whenever she catches my eye.
Which I don’t necessarily want. If I pay her too much attention, she might come over here.
I’m like all the parents – I’m so tired. She’s playing so nicely by herself for a moment. Busily pulling clothes out of the laundry with one hand, clutching tightly onto my plastic reading lamp with the other. She found it the other day and it is her latest piece of plastic obsession.
But I know it can’t last.
Soon, a curly head pops up and that sound starts, ehhh, ehh, ehhhhhh, which of course means, “Pick me up Daddy. Play with me Daddy. Pay attention to me Daddy!”
I’m so tired. She woke us up at 5 am this morning. She’ll lie there between us in bed, blabbing to no one in particular, rolling over occasionally for cuddles.
We’ve already played with all the toys in the living room, listened to music, walked around the apartment together, helped Daddy clean up, even indulged Daddy’s nostalgia by watching 15 minutes of the ‘90s show the Magic School Bus (is it weird that it’s actually better than I remember?) But, she’s one. It only held her attention for about 10 minutes. (Daddy may have watched another few minutes after she lost interest.)
So I try the best of both worlds. I pick her up and plop her in bed with me. I lay out a few board books she loves to “read” (i.e. flip pages), snuggle up close to her, and close my eyes. It seems to be working. She’s entertained and I’m resting.
Something hard hits my face. It hurts in the way something does when you’re not expecting it.
I open my eyes. She’s holding one of her books and I recognize what she’s doing. She’s trying to get me to read it to her by shoving it into my face. It’s hard not to laugh at the simultaneous directness and innocence of it all.
“What?” she’d ask if she could.
I open the first page of her “Happiness” book and I start reading.
I love watching Shifra grow and develop. It makes you aware of how we develop into a person in pieces, one small block at a time. New skills build on top of the old. Her ability to communicate with and understand the world grows in a similar fashion. More complex abilities layered on top of older simpler ones.
The request for attention is part of it. Like a superhero who just learned to control a new power, she uses it all the time.
All of which allows her personality to assert itself in clearer ways. We really only have 3 words beyond Mommy and Daddy at this stage: “No, no, no” (it’s never just one no), “more”, and “wow” (complete with the open-mouthed look of astonishment). It’s amazing how much she can get done with Mom, Dad and just those three.
No, Daddy, I don’t want that. More singing Daddy. More food Daddy. No, not THAT food, the OTHER food. Wow, Bibi, I have a Belly Button! Mooooom, pick me up. Mooom, I’m tired. Da-da-da-dad, I’m having fun.
Combine that with the facial and body expressions she’s been carrying out since she was a fetus – the I’m not sure what to make of this eyebrows (my aunt likens it to a banker who’s feeling doubtful of your loan application), the staredown that can make an adult 6 times her size flinch, the happy bouncing to any kind of beat or music, the way she moulds into your body when you cuddle her, the smile so broad it feels like you’re communicating with her soul – and you feel like this is a whole person.
So, I can’t properly describe the wonder in seeing this little being become. It allows me to push past the fatigue and be present with her. Most of the time, anyway. And if not, well, she’s got plenty of toys and books to shove in my face to remind me.
Her morning smiles are the best, open-mouth and ear-to-ear, just so happy to be here, and to see you.
She is an incredibly social being. Has been since day one. Staring intently at faces, giving out smiles. Her conversation consists of animated babbles. Ardent “gaaaaahs!” followed by squeals (we call them Pterodactyl sounds). She’s feeling something, and wants to communicate it.
Sometimes she’ll stare down strangers in the elevator until they interact with her.
Sometimes she’ll get a case of the giggles. Utter silliness, an expectant stare, waiting for you to do anything to crack her up.
Sometimes she’ll cycle through five or six different emotions in a matter of seconds. Spontaneous whole-hearted expressions of joy, curiosity, playfulness, discomfort, love, suspiciousness, anxiety. Although, one feeling always wins in the end — hunger.
She loves food, particularly sweet potato.
She loves cuddles. Hey, not all babies do.
Everything changes, so quickly. I started this list a month ago, and I’ve already had to remove two or three bullets. Things that seemed essential to her being at one point, but now she’s already moved on.
Caring for her is far more rewarding than any work I’ve done in life.
I love feeling capable, of soothing her, feeding her, comforting her, talking to her, bathing her, putting her to sleep. Even changing a poopy diaper, or cleaning up the collateral damage from poop-splosions.
It’s all an unbelievable responsibility. A joyous one. It can take me out of myself, exhausted from a poor night’s sleep or a tough meeting.
I feel bonded to her, and her to me. I can see it when she smiles at me for no other reason than just spotting my face.
Sometimes she stares so intently. But intently is the wrong word. So deeply into your eyes, like a police detective staring down a criminal. And without the social cues that we layer on top of our interactions, cues that guide us from staring so deeply at anyone. In those moments, you feel the full force of her being examining you. Once or twice, I’ve caught myself feeling self-conscious, blushing, and looking away. Which is embarrassing, because, well, she’s a baby.
I used to be afraid of children. I mean I still kind of am, but I’m learning. I never had a younger sibling, and, growing up, my younger cousins lived far away. It often felt like communicating with a different species, just totally unnatural. For someone who took a while to figure out adult interactions, it was like, ‘what do you talk to a 6-year-old about?’ And when they are so young they can’t even speak, and they look at you suspiciously like the stranger you are, what are you supposed to do? What if they cry?
So becoming a Dad myself was a foreign concept. I had no idea where to put the thought in my head. I felt I was not like the other Dads I saw around, including my own. But doing all the preparations together with my wife during her pregnancy – the doctor visits, the what to name the baby discussions, looking at the baby clothes that can only fit a tiny person, feeling the soft lining of the car seat – it was calming somehow.
The day before my daughter was born, I asked my wife if she would show me how to hold her. Shifra was born by Caesarian, and as it turned out, she was put in my arms first. It felt natural. Her head in the crook of my elbow, the other arm supporting her back and tush. The intimacy of looking down at her, face-to-face. I never needed to ask my wife how to hold her.
I’ve had the opportunity to be at home with my newborn daughter these past two months, far more often than is usually possible for a guy. My wife and I trade off chores, entertain our little one, sooth her, and watch her. We take her out to lunch and dinner, to walks in the park, to Costco runs, even to the beach.
So I’ve had a chance to take ownership over her care, if not as much as my wife (who still holds the keys to her favourite food, after all), then to a nearly equal amount.
It’s to the point where I now recognize that look in other guys, the deer in headlights, when you hold out a baby in front of them. The desire to interact, but the fear of fucking it up. And so you compromise between those feelings, and shyly reach out to touch her toe. Strange to think that was me 3 months ago.
There are still scary moments, of course, moments of self-doubt. On Shifra’s tenth day of life, I took her from my exhausted wife. I had planned to workout, so I plopped her down a safe distance away. I didn’t get more than 2 minutes in before the complaining started. Exercise routine aborted, I figured I would at least get a quick diaper change in before returning her to her mother. I quickly learned that changing a fussy baby’s diaper is so much harder and slower than a calm one. Predictably the complaints turned to crying, and then to hysteria. The wailing was so guttural, so pained, so deep from the soul, it felt like I’d betrayed and stabbed her. Even after rushing her back to her Mom, it felt like I’d failed as a father, doing the one thing you’re not supposed to do, hurt my daughter.
Of course, you learn even babies have to endure uncomfortable things now and then. Shifra doesn’t hold grudges. She lives in the present, sometimes cycling through a half-dozen emotions in a few seconds.
Sometimes, she’ll give us a hard night, opening her eyes whenever we put her down to sleep, fussing unless you hold her in a specific position. And then, spontaneously, she’ll flash a wide smile, a smile so complete her eyes sparkle, a smile that is somehow simultaneously innocent and naughty. You can’t help but laugh.
The other day I gave my daughter her first laughing fit, a genuine series of belly laughs. I wasn’t doing anything particularly different, shaking her favourite toy, and being a little silly. I was just being present with her, and then, magic happened. The lesson for me is, as always, it’s all in your head. The fear, the anxiety. Might as well choose to jump in, roll with the punches, and enjoy each moment. The rest? I’ll figure it out as I go.
It started as a flurry of messages on Twitter, as it always does these days.
It was on Tuesday, last week, fairly late in the day. I was compulsively checking Twitter.
A Turkish activist I follow was appealing to people: don’t post the link to the beheading on Twitter.
Someone from a prominent Syrian opposition group replied, and took the link down. But not before pointing out that nobody has given a shit about all the other beheadings of Syrians they’ve documented.
That’s Twitter. Debating a story even as it breaks.
I told my boss about the breaking news, who suggested I try to find a guest by deadline. That only left about 15 minutes to find someone who could tell us about James Foley.
Returning to Twitter to find a guest, I saw the pictures. A desert background. A man in an orange jumpsuit. Another one dressed in black standing over him. Foley’s name printed on the screen.
How could you not think of Daniel Pearl?
That story connected with me so deeply.
A journalist, an earnest man, a Jew, someone fascinated with the problems in the Middle East, someone who wanted the other side of the story so much he would put his own life in danger to get it. Someone with far more courage than I could ever muster.
Someone who stumbled upon this ultimate evil. Where reason and understanding didn’t matter. It didn’t matter if he was religious, left wing or right wing. All that mattered was that he was a Jew and an American. And then they killed him in the most horrible way imaginable. It’s not even imaginable.
Like Pearl, Foley was kidnapped, but he’d been held for much longer. Long enough, perhaps, for his family to hold out hope he might be returned safely.
My colleague found a number for me to call on a support page. It looked like the clearinghouse for everything related to James Foley. The place that tried to keep his cause on the front page.
“Hello,” said the voice at the other end.
“I’m calling from CBC Radio in Canada,” I began.
Then, I stumbled over my words. How do you delicately ask someone about this?
“I’m calling about the.. uuhh.. news about Foley, James Foley.”
I was already lining up my next question about who might I talk to. Often, there’s one designated family spokesperson in these cases. Or maybe there was a friend this person could connect me to.
But then the voice at the other end sounded kind of confused, and irritated.
Now a little concerned, I said, “the news that was circulating on Twitter”
And then my heart began to beat faster.
He doesn’t know.
“Who am I speaking to?”
“I’m James Foley’s brother.”
I never imagined. I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t speak.
“Listen, I’m at work and I’m kind of busy,” Foley’s brother said. “Where did you say you were calling from?”
“CBC Radio….You know what, let me call you back.”
I hung up.
His voice reverberated in my head. “What news?”
I saw him running to Twitter to check. Seeing that video. All those years of waiting and hoping and work. And advocacy. Ended in one moment. By some shmuck on the telephone.
I never called him back.
And then I cried.
This happened in the space of about 10 minutes on Tuesday last week. When you work in any kind of breaking news environment, you’re bound to run into this sort of thing every once in a while. It’s part of the job.
And I’m aware, that if it hadn’t been me, it would have been the journo who called five minutes later.
And, as my colleague reminded me last week, we’re not that far from the days when some journalists were actually instructed to break the news to family members and friends. All to provoke a good reaction that could be recorded, and packaged, and sold.
I’ve never had to do that at CBC.
But, still, it’s a funny business. You need to get people’s reactions now, when their emotions are most raw, in part because tomorrow it’s yesterday’s news.
I think as long as you treat someone with respect, and give him or her a chance to decline the interview, you’ve done your job ethically.
Because the job is important. If the person is notable, as James Foley was, then the public needs to hear about him. And they need to hear about more than just his death. They need to hear what he lived for.
The family are setting up a fund to support young journalists. If you’d like to donate, please visit this page: http://www.freejamesfoley.org/
Okay, I really don’t mean that. But it’s hard not to FEEL that sometimes.
I am exhausted by you, Facebook. Blood, ignorance, death, malice.
Did you know that the death toll in Syria surpassed 170,000 people this month? I didn’t either. I had to look it up.
No, my Facebook feed has been dominated by the Gaza war, and before that, the kidnapping and murder of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers.
It’s not so much the news. I mean, BBC or Haaretz or even the National Post can tell me what’s going on over there. It’s the commentary.
Much of it along the lines of – “you thought you knew what’s going on over there in Israel/Palestine, but nobody is talking about [whatever particular injustice I feel attached to].” Or “read this brilliant editorial by [someone who agrees with my way of thinking] which talks about [how ridiculous the other side’s opinions are].”
I haven’t written a public opinion on Israel and Palestine for years because I’ve wanted to avoid fighting about it. It’s emotionally draining. (In fact, I’ll feel most at peace if you walk away from this post with only the vaguest idea of what my opinions on the conflict actually are. For more, you’ll still have to ask me directly.)
On top of that, it’s so goddamn complicated over there, sometimes I don’t know what to think. Even after studying the topic and following it for years. The more I study, the less I’m sure I know.
Sometimes it’s easier to just kind of focus on the here-and-now, and let the hopelessness fade into the background.
And yet, what happens over there matters so much to me. Insomuch as I feel a part of a people with a beautiful tradition, a love for learning, questioning, and debate, a love for laughter, dry humour and music. A people that have been bizarrely singled out and targeted by much of the Western world for 2,000 years. I mean, 2,000 years — of forced conversions, pogroms, expulsions and murder. What is that?
In light of that history and in the shadow of the Holocaust, of course I can understand why many thought that the Jewish State was the only viable solution. We are a terrified, traumatized people, no matter how comparatively great the last 60 years have been.
Of course it’s not just me. I don’t know what it’s like to “feel” Palestinian or Arab. But I can appreciate how real it is, as real as my Jewish identity feels to me.
I can appreciate how painful and arbitrary the occupation is, how evil the towers and walls and missiles of the occupation’s army must feel to be. How al naqba is seared into the Palestinian identity. How, after hearing the death tolls in Gaza, the only viable explanation must be that the Israeli army deliberately targets Palestinian children.
Even if I could reach out and say that Israel isn’t all war and bombs and occupation, I know that in day-to-day life, I can’t. At least, not in one day. And I can’t blame them for choosing their tribe over mine.
And as for the rest of the world, those who find they are drawn to this conflict — welcome to our little clusterfuck.
You have a unique opportunity to understand both sides, without the baggage of an emotional investment. And with that comes a deeper responsibility, I think.
If you get involved, know what you are talking about. Learn, ask questions. Try to understand both sides. Even if you come to support one side’s cause over the other, try to understand why the other side acts the way they do.
If you go over there – to Israel/Palestine – talk to people. Palestinian cities, from Ramallah to Nablus to Hebron. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Gaza, if you dare.
Then, please, come in to our homes, have a cup of Turkish coffee (or Nescafe if you can stomach it), sit down at the table, and tell us what you see.
The other day I heard a story on This American Life.
There was this kid. A kid who knew he was going to be in the NBA. In grade 8, he heard that the highschool across town had a good basketball team. So he begged and pleaded. And, he must have had good parents, because he got his wish.
It was a 40 minute commute and you had to cross a sketchy park, but for this kid, it was worth it. He was so excited to go to school, he showed up early everyday.
He didn’t make many friends at the new school, but all he could talk about was the upcoming basketball tryouts.
It was his “road,” his destiny.
But when the big day came, he choked. He missed layup after layup, freethrow after freethrow.
He didn’t even make the first cut.
And, predictably, that was it.
The kid’s performance at school suffered after.
He begged to be transferred back to the school in his neighbourhood. But they wouldn’t do it until the following year. That is, unless it was a “safety” transfer — if he was somehow in danger.
Most of us would leave it at that. Wait out the year.
Instead, the kid finds the kind of person you normally avoid eye contact with — while walking through the park on his way to school. And he stares at him, until he’s provoked the guy enough. Enough so that the kid is surrounded by this guy and his gang. And then of course they demand the kid’s stuff.
When it becomes clear to the kid that surrendering his hat is not enough to mollify the group, he bolts. And actually manages to make it to school safely.
Just like that, the kid got his transfer back to his old neighbourhood.
And — a lot changes in just a few months when you’re that age. The girls in his old neighbourhood tell him he got taller and hotter. The kid said he was just following his road, even if it took him back to where he started.
And that’s where the story ends.
I’m not sure why, but the story stuck with me. On the surface, the kid was the picture of teenage heedlessness. He literally risked his life to transfer a few months earlier. And yet, I don’t know.
I have been afraid all my life. At one point or another, afraid of dogs, of dancing, of women, of my own success. Of doing, of life.
At its worst, it’s this visor grip on your spine, a cage around your chest. Fight-or-flight response is in full-gear, but there’s nowhere to go. (Maybe it’s why I love travel so much. It satisfies my need to keep moving).
In fact, sometimes it feels like my entire life has been one long war of attrition between me and my fear.
When I was younger, I tried to calm the anxiety with rational thought. A social event wasn’t going to kill me. A math test was survivable, even if I hadn’t studied enough.
And at the lowest points in university, being rational kept me from even darker places — suicide never really made sense, neither did hard drugs.
But it took me a while to realize the approach had limits.
Life is not necessarily a straight line, or even a rational process of A leads to B to C to D.
Often, you’re staring at a fork in the road. It’s A or B. C or D.
And just as often, you can make a rational argument to take both paths. And really who knows where each path ultimately leads.
After you’ve laid the rational groundwork, there’s a lot to closing your eyes and just believing. Taking a leap of faith in yourself.
The kid had it right. It doesn’t matter where “your road” goes, even if it circles back to where you started. Because by then you won’t be the same person.
The bus ride from New York to Toronto is long and painful. There’s just no way to make a 12-hour ride in one-seat without (functional) internet comfortable. Also, if you’re like me – and you can’t sleep on buses – then you’re stuck with 12 conscious hours during the day. So, of course, inevitably you get nauseated at some point.
Still, it’s fantastically cheap – much cheaper than a flight. So it becomes the temporary home of a community of people who would love to be anywhere else, but can’t.
There are little things you can do to make the experience better. Download movies in advance. Decide how much work you want to do, whatever your field, and download what you need the night before. Bring snacks. Space out your coffee. If you’re travelling alone, arrive early to grab a pair of seats to yourself.
If you’re taking Megabus, there’s one more trick. But it takes a sizeable upfront investment, so it’s not for most people. If you get to the stop maybe 30 or 45 minutes before the bus leaves, you can be the first on the bus.
Why is that important? Well, Megabus use these double-decker buses.
The bottom “floor” has the bathroom, the driver of course, and, unhelpfully, seats that are a little too low, such that the window starts at your neck. All in all, it’s dark and gloomy down there.
On the upper floor, a strip of glass runs down the middle of the roof letting light in. Which is a little better.
But the four best seats, by far, are right at the front. You’re immediately on top of the driver. The glass in front of you is nearly floor-to-ceiling. A big window lies to your left (or right, depending on which side of the bus you’re on). It feels like you’re flying over the road in a glass cage. (Sure you’ll be the first to die in an accident, but at least you’ll have enjoyed the ride.)
Now I’m an impatient person. I don’t like waiting in lines. So it’s usually not worth the trouble for me.
But on one rainy day this week, my girlfriend and I happen to arrive early enough to get the third spot in line to board the bus. It’s a 30-minute wait, but we share an umbrella and let our luggage and extremities soak. Two college-aged women stand in front of us – let’s call them Maggie and Annie.
Maggie and Annie board first and each snag a pair of choice seats at the front. Maggie has the pair of seats on the right side. Annie the pair on the left. We sit one row behind on the left, directly behind Annie.
The bus starts ambling its way out of Manhattan. It’s a quiet ride – the bus is maybe half empty. My girlfriend and I start debating what movie to watch (yes, I really wanted to see The Lego Movie).
I notice, peripherally, a women walk by us to check out the front of the bus. She gestures at the seat beside and ask Maggie, “is anyone sitting there?”
Maggie looks around at the half-empty bus, says no, and moves her stuff off the seat.
The woman sits down beside her and then gestures to the back of the bus. A second woman makes her way to the front. I’m not sure exactly what was said at this point, but it’s getting awkward.
Whatever words were exchanged, Maggie mutters “there’s plenty of seats on the bus” and gives up her pair. The newcomers take them and sit down, oblivious or uncaring – I’m not sure which. Maggie moves to the seats behind us, peeved. I turn around and give her a sympathetic look.
It’s funny how social compact works. A collective body of rules that somehow add up to culture.
In this case, a minor rule has been broken – don’t sit down beside someone if there are pairs of empty seats available. Especially when someone waited 40 minutes in the rain to get those seats.
In time, the newcomers beckon to a third friend in the back. She comes to the front of the bus and sits down beside Annie. The threesome talk loudly, laugh fully, and hold out their phones taking videos and pictures of the road ahead. They speak exclusively in a foreign language, but I won’t hazard a guess as to what it was.
Annie hangs on for a while, sighing, turning her body from side-to-side. Finally at the first rest stop, she gives up and re-locates too.
Immediately after, a huge bout of laughter erupts from the three newcomers. And that is how it stayed for the next 10 hours of the ride.
The same culture of rules that made it “wrong” for three women to sidle their way into choice seats, prevented any of us from saying anything about it. I mean, it’s just a seat. It’s not like they hit someone. Still, it was irritating. Particularly, because they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much.
People make fun of Canadian politeness all the time. Which I completely get (which in turn is a very Canadian thing to say, I realize).
An Israeli would never have given up her seat. An American might have told the women what they were doing was rude.
To me politeness is about respect. It’s a clear way of saying, “I don’t know you, but I respect you.” On the other hand, we all forget that our rules only make sense in our culture. And the differences between these collective sets of rules is how stereotypes get built, and, sometimes, racisms.
Was this a culture clash? Or were they just knowingly rude? Would it have been weird to ask if they knew what they were doing? Or really who cares, because, after all, it’s just a seat?
So, now and then, someone will ask me about sports. Something along the lines of What sports do you like? Which are your favourite? Which have you played?
Now as a not particularly athletic Jewish guy, those were always tough questions.
I could say “I used to play soccer” or “I used to play basketball” or even “I used to play baseball.” It’s all true, but for me that’s kind of like saying “I used to study Spanish.” If you count the single year I studied the language in high school to mean much of anything.
But if I’m really feeling honest, I’ll say I sometimes watch baseball. Which, for some reason, feels like a guilty admission. There’s this silence afterward, the question “why?” hanging unspoken in the air.
The usual response I get is, “Don’t you find it boring?”
Well, in many ways, yes.
Scratch, spit, look around…throw a ball. Rinse, repeat.
For three fucking hours.
And what’s with the spitting anyway? It’s disgusting and completely inappropriate in an age of HD television. Baseball should just ban the practice.
And there’s another thing. We watch sports to see human athletic prowess at its best. Performing feats we can only dream of. But, you don’t necessarily have to be fit to play some positions in baseball. Be strong, yes. Have a good throwing arm, yes. But, you can be kind of, well, fat and be an excellent pitcher or catcher. I’ve seen players thrown out because it takes them too long to lumber down the base paths.
And of course, there’s the drugs. I love that Jose Bautista is a home-run king for the Blue Jays…. But his turn-around a few years back was kind of sudden. I’m not saying he uses PEDs, but it’s harder to trust these days. And that’s probably because there’s a whole period of baseball with a gigantic asterisk permanently attached to it.
There’s something beautiful in every at bat.
A chess match, a game within a game. The pitcher must figure out how to get the ball past the batter. There’s no other option. You cannot run out the clock in baseball.
And the pitcher must do this while trying to keep the ball within a narrow rectangle, roughly from the knees to the shoulders of the batter. Or they must put so much spin on the ball that it moves into or out of the rectangle in mid-flight, fooling the batter into thinking the pitch is something other than it really is.
And the batter in turn has to try and intuit what the pitcher will do next. Because with a ball hurling towards you at 100 mph, you really don’t have much time to decide whether to swing.
In effect, with every pitch, the batter and the hitter try to out-think each other.
And then there are the quiet moments of strategy. Should a hitter bunt to help move a runner over, probably sacrificing himself in the process? Should a manager work the statistics and bring in a left-handed reliever to face a left-handed batter?
And while the catcher can be a little slow, the fielders have to be in excellent shape. The precision and skill required to catch a ball, turn around in mid-air, and throw it accurately in the opposite direction.
And there’s the human factor. The anxious young pitcher struggling with his control, basically a kid in a stadium, as tens of thousands judge him on every pitch.
And yes, it is a long game. Too long maybe. But the long wait makes you more invested in those games that come down to the wire, the bottom of the ninth.
The Blue Jays were recently on a nine-game winning streak. I knew it wouldn’t last, but watching all the little things come together gave me geeky pleasure all the same.
So I bought a $2,000 bike last year. Not a $2,000 motorcycle. A $2,000 bicycle. It was a present to myself after winning a scholarship at CBC. It is the single-most extravagant thing I have ever bought, by far.
It’s black with a red racing trim. The pedals clip onto specially designed-shoes. It is narrow and compact, light as a feather. It’s not even made out of metal. (For bike geeks: it’s an all-carbon frame with 105 components.) For non-bike geeks: your average bike frame is made out of aluminum, which makes that characteristic ‘ting’ sound when you tap it. Aluminum is cheap, but also relatively stiff, making you feel every little vibration in the road. Carbon deadens some of those vibrations, while being incredibly light and strong.
It’s also delicate. While the material is strong under the conditions it’s designed for, such as holding up a rider, it’s not under other pressures. Bang it into a metal pole or drop it in a funny way and you may just snap the thing in half. When you tap it, it sort of feels like you’re touching a tree branch. Which is disconcerting.
It is designed to do one thing and one thing only – go fast. It’s utterly impractical for everything else. It’s $2,000 on wheels. You can’t leave it anywhere. There isn’t a lock expensive enough to put my mind at ease. And even if I could, the shoes have cleats, which means you can’t just walk around. And going offroad? Nope, not if you want to keep it in good condition. It’s like a sports car. Beautiful and fast, but finicky.
I have been questioning my decision to burn so much cash on a bicycle ever since I bought it. This spring I seriously considered selling it to trade down to something more practical, or perhaps even to trade down to two more practical bikes.
So yesterday I took it out on its inaugural ride of the season, thinking this may be the last time.
And then there’s that feeling, as you pick up speed. The delicious pleasure of catching up to the cars. Of the wind in your face. The power in your legs. The control in your arms, steering you safely down a narrow strip of shoulder on a country road, between death and injury. Zooming down a tightrope at 40 km/hr.
Or there’s the quiet moments. Green fields and red farmhouses. The kind of vistas you just pass too quickly on a car to appreciate. Dirt roads and blue skies ahead. The sun at your back. An unending peace to your right and left.
And then there’s the pain. The hills that make you want to scream obscenities. The tense shoulders. The lactic acid in your legs that burns just a little hotter with every kilometre. And the numbness between your legs that makes you wonder if you’re actively hurting your chance at having children one day.
And yet, at the top of every hill, you feel more alive than ever. Like you’ve just conquered the world. Doesn’t matter that it was just a hill, and just a bicycle. It’s bliss.
Since 2006, tens of thousands of non-Jewish Eritreans and Sudanese have migrated to Israel, crossing what was then a lightly defended border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. Their arrival has upended neighbourhoods, charged Israel’s already polarized political atmosphere, led to the frantic construction of a $400 million fence to keep them out, and to a massive prison complex meant to hold them. Their migration has sparked a Bedouin kidnapping and trafficking industry in the Sinai, which in turn has led to the torture and mutilation of thousands. This is the story of Israel’s African migrants. This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Tablet Magazine.
Johnny Goytiom sits in a crowded hallway in Tel Aviv’s dilapidated Central Bus Station. The interview had been difficult to arrange and Johnny was an hour late.
He looked older than his 27 years, a hunched figure, not very tall, a meek presence. His face was slightly misshapen, as if a bone was not in the right place. He’s the kind of guy you might pass on the street without looking twice. His real name is Tseganes, but he changed it to Johnny to make it easier for Israelis to pronounce.
Between the din of commuting Israeli soldiers, yelling shopkeepers, and loud drunks, Johnny proceeds to recount how he was kidnapped and tortured to within an inch of his life in the Sinai desert. Many times over. For months. And after all of that to arrive there and be labeled an infiltrator.
African migrants – “economic infiltrators,” says the government – started sweeping over Israel’s Sinai border in the mid-2000s. Propelled by wars in the Sudan, misery in Eritrea, and facing closed doors in Europe, some would go east, through Egypt and the Sinai.
Migrants paid traffickers, often Bedouin, to cross the Sinai and hide from Egyptian army patrols. Israeli soldiers would find them sitting in little groups on the highway near the border.
The government simply didn’t know what to do with them. Israel has never had to deal with large numbers of non-Jewish refugees (who weren’t Palestinian) trying to get intothe country.
At first, the soldiers were instructed to put them into prisons. But before long, there were far too many. So, the Africans were loaded onto buses and then dropped off in a few city centres, including Tel Aviv, Arad, Eilat, and others.
But the policy proved shortsighted. Soon, a few hundred became a few thousand. By 2010, as many as 15,000 Africans were streaming into the country every year.
In neighbourhoods like South Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan, Shapira, and Hatikva, tensions rose between residents and the newcomers. Stories of rape and theft by the African migrants reverberated through the media and were repeated by politicians. It all boiled over in the summer last year, when anti-African demonstrations descended into violence and looting.
The government vowed to stop the “infiltrators” at the border. But back in the Egyptian Sinai, beginning in 2009, some traffickers realized they could make more money not delivering their human cargo safely to Israel.
In 2007, Johnny was conscripted into his country’s army, the Eritrean Defense Forces. The service is a sort of “open-ended indentured servitude,” according to Dan Connell, a journalist and expert on Eritrea. Subsistence wages are paid to soldiers sent out to work in state-run enterprises. Both men and women are conscripted. In 2009, Johnny deserted to seek a better life abroad. He left behind six brothers and two sisters.
After a month in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Johnny moved on to Sudan.
There he was taken by a group of armed men in the night from the border town of Kassala. His captors were a group called the Rashaida, a loose network of Bedouin tribes spread across Sudan and Egypt.
Johnny was packed into a group of 30 Eritreans and Ethiopians. Like cattle, they were shipped north through the desert to Egypt. Packed into small trucks, the group wasn’t fed or given protection from the elements.
“I was afraid. If a person fell off the car, that was it, he’d stay in the Sahara. In five minutes he’d die and that’s it,” Johnny says.
Near Cairo, Johnny was sold to Sinai Bedouins. His new captors took him to Ismailla, where he waited with the rest of the ‘cattle’ to be taken into Sinai.
“What did I see?” Johnny continues, in broken Hebrew.
“Two women without anything. I didn’t know them. They were from Ethiopia. They were crying. They were stolen. I saw them and I also cried.
“I said to them, ‘Don’t worry everything will be okay.’ ”
But he’d heard rumours that Sinai was worse, much worse.
Ben lives in North Tel Aviv. If the stereotype of South Tel Aviv is a working class run-down drug-dealing ghetto swamped with immigrants, the North represents the home of the hipster liberal elite. Charming cafes and posh restaurants create a young, energetic atmosphere. It’s what Israelis sometimes refer to as the bubble in an otherwise boiling Middle East. If there’s an African migrant in sight, he’s scurrying to his job in the kitchens of a local organic restaurant.
Ben, in contrast with Johnny, is tall and lanky, with a hard-lined face and a day’s beard. He speaks plainly but with an intense clarity. It’s not the burly North American stereotype of a soldier. Ben’s eyes would water but he never cried.
In two stints over the last two years, Ben was a squad leader (and later, platoon sergeant) stationed along Israel’s barren border with Egypt, between the Sinai desert and the Negev desert. In an army jeep, he led patrols of three to seven soldiers between the army’s bases. Mostly, it was boring work.
“You could be stuck at a watch-point for three days,” he says. “People get crazy from this. It also affects the way they treat the mission.” While stopping smugglers was part of the job – and there remained a remote but very real threat of terrorism – much of the job was really to carry out the government’s mandate to stop African migrants from entering Israel.
Soon Johnny learned the reason for his abduction. At the Bedouin camp in Sinai, he was handed a phone and told to ask his family and friends for $3,600.
Johnny and many others with him were unable to come up with the money.
“After three days, they started to beat me.”
One man’s leg was chopped off. Others were burned or tied up to rot in the sun.
“And it’s impossible to know when I’ll be able to leave. I thought, ‘When am I going to die?’ How many times I prayed. I spoke not with my family, just to God. How did He bring me here, to this … I thought about this a lot.”
Those who came up with the money were fed. The rest, including Johnny, were on a starvation diet: just a little rice or a sip of water.
A month passed. A group of 16 made a break for it, though Johnny did not go with them. Only three were re-captured.
His captors took out their anger on the remaining captives. For two days, they were constantly chained and beaten about the neck and face. Johnny’s face was so swollen that he could not open his eyes for days.
“I was not allowed to even moan, to show that I’m in pain. Because if you were to make a sound, they’d kill you. I was used to the pain and to getting beaten up without moving my lips.”
“They come mostly at night,” Ben says.
In 2011, Israel’s border with Egypt consisted of just a cow fence in many places. “It’s three wires. [Anyone trying to cross] can go above the wires, in between the wires, below the wires.”
Every night, the Israeli army would spot Africans crossing into Israel. Army units like Ben’s would be sent to intercept.
They would be searched, given water and bread, and then brought to cages near the bases. A soldier would “interview” the Africans, but whatever the migrants said, it was understood that certain answers should be filled in the same each time. The individual was not there to claim asylum, but was looking for work.
Women and children were usually admitted into Israel. But the men – who usually traveled without family and made up the vast majority of migrants – were often taken right back into Egypt.
“Now the Egyptians wouldn’t take them. So the idea was to take them somewhere the Egyptians would not see them, drop them off, fire a few shots in the air, and hope the Egyptians would come as fast as they can.”
This process was called a “hot return.” Ben didn’t like it, and not just because he thought it unethical.
“The most absurd part of hot returns is that it didn’t work.” Most of the Africans they dropped off would just try again. It wasn’t long before Ben started recognizing some of the same faces.
The Egyptian soldiers seemed to be under less pressure to operate according to a rulebook.
One night, Ben was sitting at a watch-point. An Israeli camera picked up three Eritreans hiding under an Egyptian guard-tower. The army shared the news with the Egyptian officers.
“I saw it with my own eyes. The camera saw it. Everybody saw it. How [the Egyptian soldier] caught them and just started kicking them, in the ribs, in the head. Maybe he killed one of them, he could have.”
With a touch of sarcasm, he continued. “That was supposed to be a successful night, because we managed to prevent them from invading Israel.”
Finally, Johnny’s luck changed. He was transferred to new Bedouin “owners”. To connect with his captors, Johnny learned some Arabic. And to try to mollify the behaviour of his captors, he talked about his three – fictional as it turns out – kids at home in Eritrea.
They beat him less. He was given food and water. And they took off his chains.
Still there was a strange price to even this level of freedom. One day Johnny was given the ‘honour’ of raping a woman of his choice from among his fellow captives. He didn’t want to rape her, so he told his captor that she had HIV. But the guard either didn’t understand what HIV is or thought Johnny was lying. For having refused the gift, Johnny was beaten in the testicles.
Johnny decided not long after to make a break for it.
“I went a hundred metres from the house, so they’d think I went to do pee. I put the jacket there, so it looks from the moonlight, it could be a person.
“After this, I fled. If they find me, I’m dead.”
With the help of an Egyptian shepherd, Johnny made it to the border. Dodging Egyptian bullets and injuring his leg in the final run, he bumped into an Israeli patrol. The Israeli soldiers gave him water and called for a doctor. Three and a half months had passed since he was captured in Sudan.
When Ben was sent back to the front lines in 2012, everything had changed. The government had nearly completed a new fence between Israel and Egypt, cutting off most of the migrants’ entry points.
Ben and other whistleblowers had anonymously spoken with the Israeli press, leading to a wave of domestic and international criticism.
But, as Ben found out, the army quietly instituted a new policy called “holding hands.”
Anyone who made it into Israel would be allowed to stay. But with the new fence, it was easier to spot the Africans before they crossed the border. Soldiers were now instructed to hold them there, until the Egyptian army arrived to pick up the Africans.
The policy was supposed to avoid the questionable ethics (and poor public image) of returning potential asylum seekers to Egypt.
Instead, with “holding hands, [the idea was that] you’re just helping the Egyptian army to catch them.”
But, “the actual holding hands was way less humane than hot returning. With hot returning at least they’d get water and bread, blankets, some kind of shelter. They had something.”
But, in this case, the Egyptians were not exactly in a rush to pick up the Africans. Often it would take days for the transfer to take place. In the meantime, the migrants were left out in the elements.
“Where you catch them, that’s where you wait. No blankets. Water and bread would come irregularly. They would be cold at night. They wouldn’t have any shade during the day.”
And Ben started to notice that more of the migrants appeared to be in rough shape compared with his first stint.
“[They] looked like people you see in National Geographic. I never saw such skinny people. I saw terrible burns on their backs. I once caught a girl, 17 I think, who was pregnant from being raped.
“What we would do is try to find some medical excuse to bring them in. So, for example, the girl who was raped and was pregnant. So she said she had a stomach ache. I called a doctor. She told the doctor she was peeing blood so he brought her in to Israel.”
Again, Ben likened it to a sick game. If the Africans tried to escape into Israel, there were rarely enough soldiers to stop them. Depending on an individual soldier’s conscience, he might make more or less of an attempt to stop them.
About 20 per cent of the Eritreans who made it to Israel since 2009 went through the “torture camps,” according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO.
Another 4,000 Eritreans have simply disappeared into the Sinai, according to Physicians for Human Rights Israel. How many were tortured to death by traffickers or were shot by the Egyptian army, no one knows.
The Sinai’s kidnapping and ransoming industry continues. The price for freedom has gone up to anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000.
Ben and Johnny have never met. Johnny isn’t even aware of the byzantine and often arbitrary rules that soldiers have to follow.
Johnny is safe in Israel but unhappy. He lives in a one-room apartment near the Central Bus Station with three other adults and two kids.
Like other African migrants, he has to work off the books to survive, since the Israeli government doesn’t legally allow him to work. He also can’t apply for refugee status as the government has delayed processing Eritrean asylum claims for years.
Johnny fears that any day the government could decide to deport him. The irony is that he wants to leave. Like many other migrants, all he wants now is to get to a Western country.
The fence separating Israel and Egypt’s Sinai has now been completed, choking off the last routes over the border. What effect this will have on the kidnapping industry is unclear, but the Hotline says Eritreans in Israel still get calls from hostage relatives in the Sinai.
But the debate over what to do with those who already made it in – 54,000 Eritreans, Sudanese and other Africans – continues.