An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Scoring in the Old City

New Years' Day, 1968. Four days on an Italian cruise ship out of Pirreus, and here we are in the port of Haifa. Customs is a breeze, and immigration is not only easy, but entertaining.

"You are immigrants?" the agent asks, reading our entry visa application. "That's right", I say, having been told that being an immigrant gets you more perks than just being a tourist.

He looks at Ellen, blue eyed, blond, milk-fed spawn of northwest Minnesota Norwegian farmers. "And your wife?" he asks, "she's also Jewish?"

"Does it matter?"

"No, you don't have to be a Jew to emigrate, but only Jews get to use the Jewish Agency (a government bureau in charge of resettlement)."

"So, then what?"

"Well, non-Jews have to use a different agency."

"So? It's not as good as the Jewish Agency?"

"Oh, yes, it's every bit as good. It's just that maybe the people in the non-Jewish agency ... maybe they don't know as many people as the ones in the Jewish Agency".

"So, O.K., she's Jewish".

"Ah, good, that's much better..." Stamp, stamp, sign here, welcome to Israel.

Outside the arrivals shed, there are old Chrysler limousines, with jump seats: Sheroots, the Israelis call them. We get in one that says Jerusalem, and when it fills, we are off across thousands of years of history -- and erosion -- to the recently "liberated" (in June, 1967) city of shrines and ethnic resentment.

We arrive at our friends' house in the early evening. It is surprisingly cold in the mountains. When we wake up the next morning, there is a foot of snow on the ground. We have traveled 7,000 miles from the Minnesota tundra to greet Jerusalem's first serious snow storm in 27 years. Honored, is not the word we use for this unwelcome encounter.

There are no snowplows, let alone snow shovels. There is no central heat. Nothing is moving: not buses, not breadtrucks, nothing. For four days, we eke out our existence on what's in the cupboard, and the meager supplies of kerosine for the footstool-size portable heater that sits in the middle of the living room. Finally, the snow melts away. When we do get out, we know where we want to go: the Old City.

We enter through the Damascus Gate, and just to our left, a series of one-room restaurants serve falafel, hummus, and other exotic Arab food. We dine to the sound of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. We wander futher along twisting narrow streets, jammed with shoppers, and lined with shops selling everything imaginable. There are awnings exteded from both sides of the street, with about a foot or two open space between them. Thus, the street is illuminated with a strip of light down the middle, while the shops are lighted mostly by oil lamps.

On each corner, there is a waif with a few charcoal braziers. In each doorway, the shopkeeper sits, smoking from a four-foot tall hookah with a long beaded tube leading to his own hand-carved (often by the smoker himself) ivory mouthpiece. It is the waif's job to make sure that the shopkeeper's coal is always hot, so that when the shopkeeper or his customer (who carries his own mouthpiece) wants a smoke, all they need to do is remove the smoking material from their kaftan and sprinkle it on the coal.

"Wow! Five thousand years of Hashish culture! Cool!" I said to our pal Jonathan, who had accompanied us, "I'd sure like some hashish about now". Well, he said, hash, while readily available to Arabs, was a little tricky to come by for the rest of us. Since Israel had occupied the West Bank and the Old City, a directive had gone out from the Army that all non-Arabs caught with the stuff would be severely punished. This was a result of a (we thought bigoted) Israeli belief that smoking the stuff had weakened the Arabs, making them easier to conquer. Ipso facto, it would be detrimental to the survival of the State of Israel to allow Israelis to have easy access. Of course this worked about as well as drug interdiction has in the United States...

"Let me ask around", he said, and a few days later he introduced us to Zvi, a buddy of his who was in the "Peace Now" movement, and thus able to travel around in Arab circles more freely than the average Israeli. This guy took us to a pool hall on Christian Quarter Road, a quiet street several blocks uphill from the city wall. He, Jonathan, and a peacenik friend of theirs that we had encountered along the way, waited outside with Ellen while I went in.

The interior was like something right out of Casablanca. Big, slow-moving ceiling fans; dimly lit except for a single cone-shaped lamp over each table. A young boy sweeping the dust off the baize surface of the nearest table looked up at me quizzicaly as I entered. As instructed, I said "Gabi". "Gaaaah BEEE" he shouted, without changing position, then stood up and walked to the murky far end of the long room. A figure, dimly perceived, stood up from his perch at the back, and began a long, languourous stroll toward me. As he got closer, I could make out a thin, swarthy young adult dressed in an electric blue suit, thin blue tie, and a white shirt with a gold collar pin, a tan camel's hair topcoat thrown over his shoulders. His hair was a trifle long, but his mustache was pencil thin, his teeth gleamed, and he wore a diamond ring on his pinkie finger. Staring at me from his bright black eyes, with an intensity clearly meant to be intimidating, he placed the paper shopping bag he was carrying on the table between us, and asked "Who wants Gabi?" The smell of fresh hashish wafted from the bag.

I pointed at the bag. "Zvi sent me. I'd like to buy some of the hashish that you have in there". "I don't have hashish. Why you think I have hashish? Hashish, it's against the law. I think you are a policeman."

I asked him to wait right there, and went out and told the others what he had said. Next thing I knew, the two Israelis were inside, reading Gabi up one side and down the other. Coward was mentioned, along with other estimates of his (unworthy) character. After about five minutes of this browbeating, Gabi "relented". Everyone knew this was all a game to see how high he could jack up the price, and sure enough, he quoted me three times the going rate, which, much to the disappointment of everyone concerned, I agreed to pay with no argument. Compared to Stateside prices, it was dirt cheap. We retired to Zvi's buddy's apartment, and we all got righteously stoned.

Next day, Ellen and I found ourselves on a small street near the top of one of the hills in the old city, only half lost, and contemplating asking someone (we had seen no-one for the last fifteen minutes) for directions, when, out from an alley, stepped Gabi, his hands in his pockets. His camel's hair coat was dirty and torn, he had a black eye and a cut on his forehead, and his eyes were wildly darting back and forth. "Last night, after you left, I got jumped by the police", he said. "They grabbed my stash, and beat me up. Luckily, I escaped before they could handcuff me and take me to jail. They are looking for me."

We, being stoned, and holding in our minds the knowledge that foreigners caught with hash were being given 6-month jail sentences and thrown out of the country, while I was holding in my watch pocket a piece of the excellent Lebanese blonde I had gotten from him the day before, began looking around nervously ourselves.

"Wow, man, I'm sorry for your trouble, but I don't think it's a good idea to be seen with you right now, okay?"

Gabi visibly relaxed. "Sure, man" he said, and faded back into the alley.

It wasn't until later that day that I realized that I had been in some danger that afternoon; that Gabi suspected me of having set him up; that there was probably a knife in his coat pocket; and that my reaction, that of someone also frightened of the police, had probably saved me from an unpleasant fate.

I never saw him again, nor did my peacenik friends. The general consencus was he had lit out for cooler climes. We carried his product with us for over four more months, through four border crossings. One day in a campground outside D˙brovnik, on the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia, I washed my jeans, forgetting that the last of our stash was in the watch pocket. That night, we built a small fire on the beach, and saying a little prayer to the Hash gods for Gabi's well being, we ritually consigned the soap-filled hash to the flames.

More of Stan's Writing Other Oaxaca Writers and Artists

All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and