Friday, January 11, 2008

Tales of the Tel Aviv construction trade

Two workers, a Jew and a young Arab, have come to repair the weatherbeaten walls of my front balcony. The sea is nearby, and the salt-laden wind that accompanies the winter rain creates pockmarks in these walls. Every few years they need repairing.

I offer the workers something to drink, and we talk. The Jew, who is in his 40s, says he learned construction work from the Arab's father. This Jew belongs to a Yemenite family that has lived in the country for seven generations. They arrived many years before the State of Israel existed. He says he served in a crack combat unit and later sought his fortune for a while in the United States. He says that he and the Arab are good friends. If fate had decreed differently, he says, they could have wound up trying to kill each other. He says this several times, and they both laugh each time.

Before the Jew leaves, he takes me aside and tells me not to let the Arab out of my sight. The Arab is a good worker, he says, but I shouldn't give him free run of my apartment because, who knows, he might feel tempted to steal something.

After the Jew departs, the Arab worker continues repairing the walls. Cleanshaven, with short-cropped hair, wearing modish clothing, he looks like your typical Tel Aviv secular Jew. He reminds me of one of my teenaged grandsons. He says he is 22, the fourth of 15 children, and his father has no life beyond toiling day and night to support the family. The young man adds that he will not let his own life wind up like this. He took engineering courses for a while and hopes to return to studies and qualify as a landscaper.

Over the next few weeks, the Arab is in the building almost every day as part of a crew that is renovating an apartment on the floor below. Although he clearly is competent at plastering and painting, he is the junior member of the crew, the one who gets the laborer tasks such as carrying bags of cement and buckets of sand up three flights of stairs.

One morning he returns to do more work at my place. I have to go out, so I ask him to pull the door shut behind him when he leaves. That afternoon, I am in a meeting across town when a neighbor telephones to say that the Arab worker has been waiting for me outside the building for a couple of hours. The worker wants to know what to do with a key which I had forgotten inside the door. He brings me the key the next day and politely refuses when I say I'll pay for the time he spent waiting. After a lecture from me about why he is entitled to reimbursement, he accepts the money.

In subsequent conversations, he tells more about his personal situation. One day he says that when the separation barrier is completed, it will be more difficult for him to get to work from his home on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Another time, he says he has an older brother who lives in the United States. He also had a girlfriend who moved to the states, but he doesn't know exactly where.

One day as we are drinking coffee he tells me we never will have peace here. Another time, he rolls down a sock to show a scar. A bullet hit him in the leg as he was watching a confrontation between Arabs and Jewish soldiers, he says. He wasn't part of it, he says, but the bullet hit him anyway. All of this is said with a smile.

This week as we were passing each other on the stairs, he took off his work glove and shook my hand. He smiled and said he has acquired the papers he needs to go to the United States. He rattled off a list of various sums he had to pay for airfare and various documents. Soon he will join his brother, he said.

-- Joseph M. Hochstein, Tel Aviv

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