Bush left. Can the Jew Stay?

JTNY's artistic director, Tuvia Tenenbom, goes to Saudi Arabia to learn first hand what 'Wahhabism' is all about. This article appeared in the venerated German weekly Die Zeit. A shorter version of this article was published on the front page of Corriere della Sera, Italy's most prestigious daily. (To view the German article please click HERE. For the Italian version, please click HERE. To listen to an interview with Tuvia on WABC Radio in New York, click HERE.)

by Tuvia Tenenbom

Have you ever read al-Jazeera online? No, not the one in English; that's pretty boring. I'm talking about the one in Arabic, the one full of original ideas and tasty humor. Yes, I know, you probably don’t read Arabic. In such a case, my friend, you miss quite a lot.

It's mid January 2008 in New York City. I have my Turkish coffee, my French cigarette, and my favorite website: Al-Jazeera.net. Today I read about the New Plot of "the Jews": Building a tunnel under Temple Mount (the way Jews call it), or the Noble Sanctuary (the way Muslims call it), in Jerusalem (as Jews call it), or the Holy City (as Muslims call it). The reason? The Jews want to get to the bottom of al-Aqsa Mosque, erect a temple underneath it, and have this new Temple grow up in a way that the Mosque would be toppled over. In addition, reports al-Jazeera on the top of its news page, "the Jews" have sent letters to "international Jews" and all agreed on this new trick.

This "international Jews" idea might remind you of Mr. Adolf Hitler's line of thinking, but you must admit that the Temple Tree is much fresher than any dream the Nazis have ever had. As for me, this piece of "news" immediately connects with my funny bone and I get pretty excited. Oh, boy, how much I miss the Middle East! It's one of those places on the planet I love most. People laugh at me when I say that my dream is to live in Jordan, my favorite piece of real estate. Sadly, I can't do it. Last I was there I asked my host what he would do if I were to tell him that I were Jewish. "Slaughter you on the spot," he said. I never told him. What I did say to him was that I'm German and that my dad served in the S.S. He loved me. I was his favorite man. You see, that's why I can't live in Jordan. But I can at least dream.

Lucky me, between cigarettes and other refreshing al-Jazeera stories the press office of the White House called. President Bush was about to visit the Middle East, and they wondered if I'd like to join him. And since I'm a journalist in my spare time, they also offered to arrange my visa.

How could I say no to such an offer? It wasn't long ago when I tried to go to Saudi Arabia, or Saudia the way they call it in the Mideast, on my own. Saudia, land of Wahhbism, long captured my imagination and bewitched my soul. So, when one day my wishes took the best of me, I made an attempt to get there. I went to the Saudi government's website, starting the process of visa application. Interesting site, no doubt. They want to know, for example, "What is your religion?" I'm not a religious person, but I was raised as an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, so I thought it proper to choose Judaism. But, hold on, there's a problem here: Judaism is not an option. I left "religion" blank and moved on to the next question, "Your country of birth." Well, I was born in Israel. But this country, don't you know, doesn't exist in the Saudi mind.
Before long, I gave up on my Saudi dream.

So, when the White House called, I immediately accepted and in less than one week, bingo, I got my visa to Saudia. "Accompanying the American President," the Saudis stamped on my passport. Does it mean that I have to leave with Bush? I don't know and I don't care, I simply take a plane and fly to Saudia.

I, a man whose main job title is, Artistic Director of The Jewish Theater of New York, am in Saudia. Any other day the Saudis would rather suffer a stroke than seeing me in their country, but today they had to make an exception and I feel fantastic: A man born in a country that doesn't exist, raised in a religion that doesn't exist, walks the streets of Saudia and nobody stops this UFO. Great!

Then Bush left, and the Jew was by himself at the Holiday Inn, Riyadh. But not for long. At almost the exact time that Air Force One touched ground in the USA, I'm called to meet an "important person who wishes to talk with you." I'm taken through a hidden door to a floor below—a place rather dark and dirty. The sign on the door says, "Human Resources Manager, Mohammad Al-Mallah." What's going on here? Am I supposed to be applying for a job today? Human Resources??! "Sit down," says the man. "Journalists," he muses, "ask questions but don't know where to find answers." All answers are "in this book," he asserts as he points to a green leather-bound Quran. I try to open the book, but he's not amused: "You no Muslim, your hand no clean, you touch no holy book." Wait a sec: Does he know that I'm Jewish?
But before I can figure out the answer to this question, the Human Resource Manager quickly lays down the rules for me: "No carrying camera, no interview people, no talking politics. Have questions?" Stupidly enough, I say: "Yes, I have a question: Do you think there will be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?" "Yes," says the Human Resourcer. "As it say in this Holy Book, all Jews die and there be peace between all."

I walk to my hotel room and write an email to the Saudi Embassy in D.C., asking if this Al-Mallah speaks in their government's name. Saudi officials have an exquisite sense of humor, especially when responding to unwanted questions, and this I'll find out only the next day: About half the sites I visit on the web today will be blocked by the Censor the day of morrow.

I press "Send" and I wonder: How much do they know about me?

I'm the only Jew in Saudia. Strange. Even Nazi Germany had more Jews--
My head's exploding with thoughts: What's the exact dividing line between the Saudis and me? Why do they consider me an enemy? I head out and go for a walk. Let me try to figure out where a Jew ends and a Saudi starts, I say to myself.

I'm on King Abdulaziz Street, walking alone. Flying low above me is a squadron of four military planes. They do such magnificent maneuvers above my head that the reaction I feel coming off my guts is admiration: Isn't this just gorgeous!
I haven't seen military planes that close since my childhood days in Israel, during the Six Day War. In some fantastic, unexplained magical spirit I feel myself transported into my childhood again. These planes just tear me out of King Abdulaziz Street in Saudia and magically plant me 40 years earlier in Prophet Jonah Street in Tel Aviv. I suddenly have a strong craving for ice cream and am totally possessed by a strange urge to play Lego. I walk slowly now, totally hypnotized when another squadron soon flies above my head. I'm elated! I start counting: 4 and 4 and 4 and 4...and when I reach 50, I simply stop the count. In the days ahead I'll learn that this flight of fancy is a daily routine in Riyadh. Why such display of power above a densely populated area in a country blessed with enormous desert airspace, is anybody's guess.

I hail a cab and head back to the hotel. I turn the TV on; I love Arabic TVs--they're pretty imaginative and quite often the news is offered with much passion. Passion is good; I love passion. Today, this TV is busy with the Jews, also known here as Mass Murderers. Hold on, mister: Are you talking about me?? I turn the TV off, go out and hail a cab again. Lucky me, it's the same driver who brought me here. Funny enough, my luck won't stop here. Soon I'm to discover that nine out of ten times when I hail cab in this 5-million-people city, magically enough it's going to be the very same driver. "Where you going, sir?" "Take me to a nightclub." No; not in my wildest dreams. In this land, where women cannot reveal more than a pair of eyes, ten fingers, and one huge black sack, not even your ‘personal' cabbie could get you there. No belly dancers here, sorry. No theater to speak of either. No cinema anywhere. Lots of mosques, though. But I'm no Muslim and I need some kind of entertainment. What's a Jew to do in Saudia?

The other day, I remember, I read about an interesting museum in Riyadh, the National Museum.
In a Saudi government's publication I read the following: "The museum is distinguished for the integrity of its presentations, presenting a serial topic about the beginning of the creation of the universe up to the present time where the Arab Peninsula represents the pivot."
I've never in my life seen such a museum, and sure as hell that I can't see one like it in New York. So why not see it here?
Well, to the museum we go.
A guard stands at the gate. "Museum," he says, "will open in one hour."
He says, he must know.
"Okay," I say, "I'll come back in an hour."
"No need," he says, "Why don't you sit with the ladies in the Square?"
The Ladies in question are all the Two Eyes Walking sort—every inch of their bodies covered except for pair of eyes and all (!) fingers. I look at them, but they see me not. Modest folks. I decline the guard's kind offer and say that I'd be back in an hour. I go to a restaurant, order my food, but then Sala time is here: The Muezzin calls for prayer and all leave. "Come back in twenty minutes," says the chef. I go for a walk, kill some time, then return to the museum. Surprise, surprise: Three policemen are at the entrance now, plus the guard who greets me with a smile. "Welcome," he says. "Is the museum open?" I ask. "Open," he says. "Where's the entry door?" I ask. He stares at me as if I just arrived from Mars. "You want to go in?" he wonders. "If you don't mind," I say. "One minute," he says. He and the cops are having a little chat a few steps away; the session soon concludes and the guard says: "No entry for single men today, only family. If you bring your wife and children, you go in. Welcome."

Yes, welcome. Welcome to Saudia. One Jew, one cabbie, no women. We've got planes, you know--no pictures, please--and we fly, baby!

But, I must admit, in due course I had enough of planes. More so, I achingly started missing the sight of women. So, after about a week, I went to the airport. Guess what? I went out to hail a cab and my ‘personal' cabbie was right there, ready to serve me. I flew to Cairo, Egypt, where I hooked up with Mr. Ashraf. When you arrive in Cairo from Saudia, you feel like you've landed in the most democratic of countries. In comparison to Riyadh, Cairo feels like Amsterdam. What a great feeling! To add to the pleasure, Mr. Ashraf is here to greet me. Ashraf is Coptic, or so he says. From the let go Ashraf tells me: "I can talk about everything in the world, except politics. Politics I don't understand. Zero." When I ask him how the Copts are treated by the regime he says: "Very good, no problem."

Ashraf likes to entertain his guests. He's not the kind of guy who'll take you to see the Pyramids. Oh no. He takes me to join him on a ride to the City of the Dead. This ‘city' is actually a cemetery, where quite a number of Cairo's poor live in tombs, rent-free. It was late at night, everybody else is either dead or asleep, and Ashraf is inspired to tell me about "nice European girls." He takes out his cellphone and shows me some videos, naked blond girls who can't get enough sex. Yep, hands down this Ashraf is much more fun than Mallah.

The videos done, none of the dead disturbed, and Ashraf feels like coffee. It's already three o'clock in the morning, and we are going to the nearest shisha place. Shisha is that ubiquitous water pipe served in many cafes, where you sit and smoke for hours, carefully watching every inch of the noon's movements. We order coffee and shisha, and Ashraf is in the mood of talking.
"Mubarak, our president," starts Ashraf, "took out the statue of Ramesses from the center of the city and replaced it with his own statue. Do you know why?"
"If Mubarak put his statue here, where normal people like me live, all of us would shoot at it every minute of the day. You understand? That's why he put it in the center. In the center, where you have many, many policemen, nobody dares shooting at him. But here, right here, he would be dead every day many times. Do you know what's my dream?"
"That Mubarak is gone. Finished."
Are you planning to kill him?
"No, not me! The Israelis. By God, I hope, they come here again and shoot him and all his guards. Halas. Enough. You think it's easy to be Christian in Egypt? No! My friend, Mohammad, he comes to me every evening and together we watch the videos on my phone. He takes off his glasses and he looks at the naked blonds from very close. When the videos are finish, he runs upstairs to his wife and makes love to her all night. If he doesn't see my videos, his wife has no love. She and I, you know, we get along nice. We make jokes. I could sleep with her. She would sleep with me. We have good chemistry. But we can't. Do you know why we can't?"
"Because I'm Christian and she's Muslim. If you want to have problems in this country, you sleep with Muslims. May God strike Mubarak. He cares about nothing. Sadat, remember him? I can take you to his Memorial site. You want to go? He, Sadat, God bless his soul, he loved the people. He was good. But he's dead. And Mubarak is alive.
Tell me: Are you from the CIA?"
"Nobody got me to talk like this before you. You must be CIA. You know how to get out of me what I think. If you tell anybody, I will deny. Or, you know, maybe not. I have no fear. Fuck all the security people. What do you want to eat? It's on me. You don't pay. Instead of pay, you send me Playboy by email. We don't have Playboy in Egypt, it's a Muslim country and the government doesn't allow Playboy. By email, with all the pictures. Also the girl in the center. More coffee? After we eat and drink I will take you to a mosque. We pray together. Okay?"

The days pass and I find myself back in New York. It's coffee time, and al-Jazeera time as well. What's new today? The Israeli Ambassador to Egypt came up with some strange idea of introducing Hebrew into the Egyptian curriculum. Any other idea like this, from whatever ambassador, would probably never find its way into the news. But not this one. One Dr. Abdul, quoted in today's al-Jazeera, feels pretty much very "insulted." Hebrew after all, so al-Jazeera, is an "artificial" language.

Say what?!

For better or worse, this needless little attack on the Hebrew language gets the best of me: Why assault everything Jewish?

And it makes me thinking: If a Jew living in New York can go to Saudia only through the back door of George Bush, if his tongue is "artificial" just because it happened to be a Jewish language, and if for the rest of his life he has to go on parading as the son of an S.S. officer just to survive, perhaps our only chance for peace in the Middle East is indeed in a City of the Dead--as Mr. Mallah so faithfully envisions it. But if we happen to end up there, I certainly hope that Mr. Ashraf will be there as well. By then, I'm sure, he'll have some new videos.


A common sight/page when surfing the web in Saudi Arabia: The Censor.



Late Night at City of the Dead, lit by the headlights of Ashraf's car

• • •

Background: Copy of visa. "Accompanying the American President. Religion: Not Muslim."

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