I'm going to kill two birds with one virtual stone today - I'm going to write something on fellow travelers, this week's Sunday Scribblings prompt, and at the same time I'm going to write about Tel Aviv for the Carnival of Cities which is being hosted this month by Grace of Sandier Pastures.
The winter of 1990-1991 I was finishing my last year of university back in the States. I'd spent the previous year at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and at the end of this final year I was planning on getting married and returning to Israel for good. While I was back in New Jersey, my fiance (now husband of 16 years) was serving in the Israeli army. If you are wondering why that winter rings a bell in your mind, it was the date of the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait in August, and Bush (the first one) had announced that if he didn't withdraw by January 16, 1991, that he would suffer the consequences. (It's a very strange feeling to have a start date for a war hanging over your head like that. It's hard to explain if you haven't lived through it.) Everyone knew that the moment the war began, Iraq would begin attacking Israel (and Saudi Arabia) to provoke the Israelis into retaliating, in the hopes that this would split the Arab nations away from the anti-Iraq coalition. Israel did in fact come very close to retaliating (and wouldn't you if another country suddenly declared war on you and began lobbing missiles at your civilian population centers?), but held back due to Bush's pledge to protect Israeli cities from the scuds. (As a result of this promise, U.S. Patriot missile batteries were deployed in Israel in a valiant but ultimately ineffectual attempt to shoot down the scuds.)
In the midst of all this and with a typical sense of the invincibility of youth, I decided to spend the end of December and most of January in Israel. I'd been separated for my fiance long enough and didn't want to miss this opportunity to be with him, despite the increasingly worrying political climate. I'm not going to go into war stories right now, suffice it to say that sitting there with a gas mask on during those first nights of scuds, when everyone still thought he might be crazy enough to use chemical warfare, were the most frightening of my life. The whole country shut down, hoping the next scud wouldn't fall on their bedroom roof. I was lucky, I was on kibbutz up north where I was relatively safe. In Tel Aviv and the central region the fears were much more real.
After a few weeks of this surreal existence, trying to get on with our lives while carrying gas masks around the kibbutz, a few things slowly returned to something approaching normal, and as part of this the airport finally reopened, just in time for my flight out. I knew that if I did not get on that flight out I could be stuck for weeks more and end up having to cancel my final semester of university. I had no choice, it was time to go home. This was more complicated than it would have been in peacetime though, since public transportation was still not running and there was nearly no civilian traffic on the roads. Luckily, someone from the kibbutz had to drive down to Tel Aviv very early that morning. I accepted his offer of a lift with gratitude, and that is how I found myself sitting outside a closed bakery in North Tel Aviv at 6am, with no place to go, no way to get there anyway, and a flight that wasn't leaving until midnight.
At 7 the owners came to open the store. I quickly went inside and ordered a coffee and a pastry, glad for the chance to at least warm up for a while. After I'd sat there for about 45 minutes (the only customer who came and actually stayed), the wife asked me what on earth I was doing there, in this outlying neighborhood in the middle of a war, surrounded by luggage and reading a book. When I told her, she went in the back and spoke with her husband. Five minutes later I found myself being driven to their apartment, coffee and a big bag of baked goods in hand. They had to work that day, but I was more than welcome to stay in their home until it was time to leave for the airport that evening. Her only request was not to go out on the balcony, since the scuds had blown out the windows and there was broken glass everywhere.
These people hadn't even known my name when they opened their home to me and then left me there on my own all day. Seventeen years later I am still speechless with gratitude at their generosity. Israelis can be abrasive at times, occasionally even downright rude, but when push comes to shove they pull out this inner reserve of strength and compassion that has no equal. The whole country temporarily forgets its many differences and pulls together for the common good. Israelis have known their share of crises, but if I had to pick who to have sitting next to me during the next one there is no one in the world I'd rather have with me.