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In Kippahs+Keffiyas on July 16, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Me. Karen Armstrong. A Hasidic bus ride to New York.

This was the peculiar circumstance that set off a chain of events that have lead me back to Lebanon this summer. I’d like to share the story with you:

It was the fall of 2008. My Israeli-Canadian friend Staav and I were due for a trip to New York and being on a tight budget, we just couldn’t fly. Staav had suggested the Montreal-Brooklyn Hasidic bus service (AKA Tov Travel) since we had no other red-eye options and didn’t want to waste a day on the road. I agreed right way of course, looking forward to a potentially interesting journey to the Big Apple with my favorite cousins.

As we waited under the kosher moonlight of Montreal’s Jewish district in Outremont, commuters began to show up in cute little Orthodox clans: Husband Wife. Husband Wife Baby. Husband Wife 2 Babies. Sometimes 3. As they slowly filed in, the heavy-set Hasid bus driver yelled at them in Brooklynese: “Fasta fasta! We haven’t got all night people!”

Maybe studying the Torah wasn't Yentl's only motivation to cross-dress...

I observed the women with utter fascination. I hadn’t come across many in Montreal and I guess that’s because, much like orthodox Muslims, the women tend to be invisible. I won’t elaborate too much on their unflattering uniform, only to say that it’s a grand shame in comparison to the haute couture stylings of their men: long formless skirts, loafers, loose shirts and those ghastly 80s local-TV-anchor type wigs.

On this trip, pastel shower turbans covered their shaved heads. Some had shaved eyebrows too, which gave their pale faces a strange, doughy look. (So unfair. The whole thing reminded me too much of the niqab.) They were all Ashkenazis, Jews from Europe.

And then there was us. The Iraqi Muslim and the Moroccan Jewess: With our curly heavy-metal manes and tight jeans, we stood out like two urban Jezebelles at a Bar Mitzvah. We headed straight for the back of the bus, as if in some form of self-imposed segregation.

Staav, a gorgeous woman of Moroccan descent, is a friend from my university days. I felt close to her from day one- as she did with me. She would always tell me how that hospitable Middle Eastern warmth she missed so much since coming to Canada could always be found during a gathering with me and our Arab crew. She felt at home around us. In fact, we were on our way to Brooklyn to visit Susie, our dear Palestinian-Canadian girlfriend.

Khabibti,” Staav murmured to me lovingly with her adorable mispronunciation of the Arabic word, “Let’s not talk politics on the ride, ok?”. She gave me a loving maternal look with her beguilingly wide-set forest green eyes. I responded with a knowing wink:

“Of course khatikha…

“By the way I want you to know that I’m proud of you, khabibti…

“Proud? What for?”

“Well you know… For taking this bus with me!”

I was perplexed. Years of knowing Staav- of Staav knowing me- didn’t make her really understand that this sort of thing never mattered to me.

As we settled into our seats, we watched a group of giggly, maybe not-so-observant Hasidic girls enter the bus. They wore their hair long and I figured it had something to do with being unmarried. Their attire was frumpy nevertheless. They took over two rows in front of us and chatted away in Hebrew in what must have been (judging from the intonations and wild hand gestures) serious girl-talk.

Our bus driver, with his bushy beard and huge Fedora, was clearly getting very impatient and spoke up: “ Fa cryin’ out loud!” Suddenly, a young man hurried onto the bus, dressed in an over-sized white tracksuit, rocking thick silver chains around his neck and wrist. It was a standard Hip Hop look aside from the black kippa on his head. The young ladies in front of us quieted down and perked up, as he dispensed a couple of sly shaloms on his way to the back. He threw down his sports bag and sat in the empty two-seater beside me.

“OK dat’s it people we’re movin’!!!” shouted the bus driver, and we were on our way.

Staav got comfortable with her pillow and her favorite blanket and dozed off right away on the row behind me. I busted out a book and tried to read, but was utterly distracted by the inevitable conversation that transpired between Avi G and The Sisterhood of the Travelling Maxiskirts. I didn’t understand a thing but it was interesting to assess the male-female dynamics within the context. He was a chatty kid, super-friendly and inquisitive but his vibe was harmless. He couldn’t have been older than 21. Much hair tossing ensued.

Meanwhile, I was asking myself why on Earth I brought Karen Armstrong’s political biography of the prophet Muhammad on an 8-hour bus ride where I would be surrounded by Orthodox Jews.

It was Ramadan and I wasn’t fasting. I hadn’t really fasted for years. But the guilt remains, a weight anchored deep in my soul since childhood. Maybe at a subconscious level, I had chosen this book in particular to somehow redeem myself. So I persevered; trying to take in Santa Karena’s noble work, all the while hiding the book cover from plain view.

My neighbor’s conversation with the girls died down and I could see him sneaking curious glances at me from the corner of my eye. Staav was fast asleep and I didn’t mind a little conversation. So I put the book down and said:


“Hi! Looks like a good story… What are you reading?”

“Ummm…Yeah it is!” I smiled and reluctantly showed him the cover of the book. He was either going to stop talking to me and change seats or alert the bus driver that a terrorist was in the house. Either way Staav was going to kill me.

“Oh! Like Muslims Muhammad?”

“Yes! Muslims Muhammad!”


A pregnant pause.

“You know it’s important to read about religions. They’re all basically saying the same thing…”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m Iraqi…”

“Oh cool! Iraqi Jew!”

“Umm no, well… I’m Muslim actually.”

His eyebrows were poised to jump right off his forehead until a quizzical look took over his face. He leaned in quickly and whispered:

And you don’t mind being on a bus with us??”

“Why would I mind? Do you mind?”

“Well uuhh personally no but… I don’t know! I thought Muslims didn’t like to be around Jews!”

“Well I’m here with my good Jewish friend Staav. I have many Jewish friends actually. Don’t you have any Muslim friends?”

“No… I don’t.”

“Oh that’s too bad… Well I guess you’ve made your first one! My name is Hala, nice to meet you.”

I offered my hand and he took it.

“I’m Isaac. Nice to meet you too!”

I caught a young Hasidic couple a few rows ahead, canoodling as their baby slept in a cot at their feet. They were clearly in love. Isaac continued:

“So do you speak Arabic?”

“Yes I do…”

Ana kaman! Ana Libnani! (Me too I’m Lebanese!)

It was now my eyebrows’ turn to do the dance.

Inta libnani yahoodi?!” (You’re a Lebanese Jew?!)

Eh! Ahli min Beirut!” (Yeah! Our family is from Beirut!)

I was floored. Iraqi Jews, Moroccan Jews, Syrian Jews, Yemeni… I’d read up on them a bit. But I’d never come across anything about the Jewish community of Lebanon, let alone met a member! The energy in our conversation surged. I asked a million questions about his family and their origins. He was thrilled to be able to show off his Arabic and I was fascinated with his story.

Isaac’s parents had left Beirut in the 70s when the civil war broke out, as many Lebanese citizens of other confessions did. They settled in Montreal where he and his siblings were born. They grew up speaking Arabic at home, and their parents had instilled in them a sense of belonging to their cultural heritage. It seemed to have been a priority. They were Lebanese first. I told him about my work and my travels in the Middle East.

“Have you ever been to Beirut?” He asked, wide-eyed.

“I have. Many times. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world!”

“Oh I’d love to see it with my own eyes…”

“You have to one day! You know you could go Isaac, you just can’t enter if your passport has an Israel visa stamp.”

“Yeah right, they’d probably shoot me at the airport!”

It’s true that Jewish people, reporters and business men were known to enter Beirut and other Arab countries, so long as their passports were Israel-free. But I kind of knew how he felt. I understood. Lebanon has been at war with Israel for decades. The words “Jewish” and “Israeli” have come to mean the same thing. I couldn’t fully imagine what it would be like for him, traveling across the motherland, hiding such an integral part of his identity.

“Maybe you’ll get to go there one day… I hope so for you.”

We passed out for a few hours and woke up as the bus began to pull up to the first stop, Manhattan. Isaac got ready to get off the bus. He was attending a Syrian Jewish wedding that night. He’d informed me that both communities were tight, New York and Montreal being their major centers.

He gave me his business card, “Come by anytime.” It read: SINDBAD JEWELLERY. He worked for his father at their downtown shop in Montreal.

As he walked away I tried to imagine the celebration that awaited him: Would they be dancing to George Wassouf’s music? Would there be mountains of baqlawa and other heavenly Syrian sweets? I looked down at the card again. Sindbad Jewellery. The irony (and the coincidence) that they had chosen a legendary name from Iraqi Muslim folklore did not escape me.


Jews. The Arab Kind.

In Kippahs+Keffiyas on July 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Straight Up: She's a Syrian Jew!

I must preface this post with a confession: I am a Muslim and I’m a bit obsessed with Jews. Not in a creepy Single White Female kind of way, it’s more like E.T. A loving fascination. Ask my good old friend Sahar Cohen. It takes up part of the same space in my brain that drives me to google Lady Gaga almost everyday because I’m captivated by everything about her persona, despite her mediocre music (sorry girlfriend, it’s got a lot of catching up to do with your style).

JewQ: A fine specimen of Hasidic chic

I’m fascinated by Judaism in all aspects, from its esoteric teachings to the Hebrew script. And in my opinion, Orthodox Jews have the most fashion-forward religious dress sense, hands down. Whenever I’m in Mile End, Montreal’s Jewish district, I find myself sneaking glances at Hasidic passers-by, mentally snapping Zohartorialist photos as the sidewalk transforms into a Holy runway: theatrical circle fur hats, structured suits, boxy wool coats, draping tallit scarves with their sometimes peekaboo tzi-tzi fringes. And Black is always in.  I mean how much more avant-garde can you get with accessorizing than Tefillin? Come to think of it, it’s totally Gaga, no?

But I digress… This little infatuation I have with our dear cousins has a more particular penchant: It’s the Jews from the Arab World that really intrigue me.

Once upon a time not so long ago, an Arab could be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc… Up until the 1950s, the Jewish community was an integral part of the fabric of Arab society. They spoke Arabic and contributed to the arts and sciences. They had been rooted in countries in like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Yemen for millenia. Growing up, my grandparents would recount fond memories of their Jewish neighbors and colleagues in the golden days of Basra and Baghdad, insisting that they were always considered – and considered themselves- Iraqi first. They would attend their weddings and parties and my paternal grandfather worked with them in municipal affairs during his career as the Mayor of Basra. And stories abound from Iraqi family friends, about how they, Muslim Iraqis, held their Jewish friends’ possessions for safekeeping when they had to flee. Theirs was a bond that seemed to go beyond friendship. For sure the history of Jews in the Arab World is a complex one that had its ups and downs, but once upon a time, they were brothers and sisters.

We now live in a time of capitalism and war, where The Dollar is the only God (the bottom line being its profit). We have an overwhelming media machine that can’t compute the pesky nuances of human culture and identity because it just doesn’t sell. Black and white is always sexier, be it in a news story or an evening outfit. So we should ask: When did a segment of our people stop being Arabs and exclusively “Jews”? Why and how? And what is an Arab anyway? A definition from Wikipedia online:

Arab people (عربي, arabi) or Arabs (العرب al-arab):  A  pan-ethnicity of peoples of various ancestral origins, religious backgrounds and historic identities, whose members, on an individual basis, identify as such on one or more of linguistic, cultural, political, or genealogical grounds.

In reality, the meaning of the word has boiled down to an exclusive, narrow and erroneous concept: Arab=Muslim. This is especially evident in Western as well as Middle Eastern media. Perhaps even world-wide.

Huda Nunu: Bahrain's US Ambassador is Jewish and 'out'.

Some Jews remain in the Arab World, although most of them are still “in the closet” and figures are virtually impossible to come by. One thing’s for sure: The Arab-Israeli conflict, which has raged on for over 60 years, created a dramatic shift in demographics and identity. Iraqi Jewish scholar Ella Shohat describes this quandary:

“To be an Arab Jew (was suddenly) seen as a kind of logical paradox (…). This binarism has led many Oriental Jews (our name in Israel referring to our common Asian and African countries of origin is Mizrahi) to a profound and visceral schizophrenia, since for the first time in our history Arabness and Jewishness have been imposed as antonyms”.

Something interesting is happening in the Arab World these days. Abandoned synagogues are being reborn in places like Egypt and Lebanon, reviving the history of Muslim-Jewish coexistence. The question is: Do these restoration projects signal the beginning of the possible return of Arab Jewish communities to the region?

And so I find myself back in Beirut after 4 years, embarking on a long-term project exploring this issue with a little research & development grant from La Belle Province, my home away from home, Quebec.

More on the Jews of Lebanon (and the sad state of Hasidic women’s wear) in my next post.