The Portrait

by Geoffrey Clarfield (September 2013)

Recently I received a picture in the mail. It is a painting of a man in his mid forties. He wears blue pants, a brown leather belt and a loose fitting long sleeve shirt with an open collar. Underneath is a simple blue t-shirt. A container for sunglasses sticks out of his breast pocket and he wears a light canvas hat with a rim. You can’t see all of his face, which is covered by a trimmed beard. There is a touch of gray above and below his lip and he stands like someone in his mid forties, with one hand in his pants pocket.

There are things that I like about the picture and then again, things that I don’t like. The man seems relaxed. There is little tension in his face and less in the way he stands. In fact, it is a little too relaxed and he could do with a bit more exercise, but he is not overweight and looks thin enough. He stands there, against the bare wall of an old Turkish fort, outlined in the outstanding deep blue light that suffuses the Mediterranean during the six months of rain that visitors to this part of the world ethnocentrically have called “winter.”

There are only two seasons in the Mediterranean, a dry one that lasts for six months and a rainy one that lasts for six months. If you read about the ceremonies of the Canaanites, Israelites and the other ancient peoples who have inhabited these lands, you will see that their domestic round was in harmony with this rhythm of rain and sun and that in the Mediterranean, the year is lived like the breath of Jonah’s whale: for six months people inhale the heavily scented flowers and cultivated gardens with their lemons, pomegranates and vineyards, spending nights on the street, drinking coffee, flirting, visiting and endlessly socializing. Then, for six months, they hibernate.

Historians of the region have pointed out that winter is a time of introspection and planning and oddly, a time of peace, for the storms that Poseidon sends from the Pillars of Hercules to the Cedars of Lebanon fall mainly between October and April and make military movement hard. Wise mariners have always done their best to spend these months drinking home made arak, or ouzo, amid the tobacco smoke of the taverna, telling tall tales and longing for spring.

When the first rain comes, it is as if a jealous God has chastised his followers and ordered them to repent for their licentious ways forcing them inwards, making them sit with kin and neighbors indoors, while the storm god pounds their roofs with water. They huddle around charcoal burning braziers, or the modern equivalent, that rekindle familial warmth and allow elders to argue over the true meaning of sacred texts.

The man in the portrait is not from the Mediterranean but he seems comfortable in its light and beside its walls, as if he has adopted the place as his home, and like many who take up residence in a foreign country, he stands there as if the archaeological debris of the centuries that surrounds him is so much part of daily life as to become unremarkable. Unlike a tourist he has no camera around his neck nor does he carry a bag.

Despite the blue of his clothes, which blends in with the multiple blues that surround him, his body language gives him away. His posture is not that of the taut and nervous son of the Mediterranean, but that of someone born in a northern climate where the wilderness behind the city frontier goes on for thousands of miles. Such a pose says that “my space is mine, yours is yours and I can’t understand why you might covet the ground upon which I stand.”  It is the opposite of the hidden theme of the Mediterranean, which is scarcity.

Scholars of the Mediterranean point out that for centuries it has been a region that cannot feed itself. Thus, since the rise of the Spanish and Ottoman empires, its fluctuating agricultural output has always been supplemented with imports from as far away as the Slavic lands and as far north as the Baltic Sea. It has exported what it produces best, people-quick witted, tortured by a system of values that is based on honor and shame and which creates a curious, guarded but gregarious and inquisitive personality type that despite its talkativeness is loathe to give away important information. Just think of Columbus.

The Greeks call this kind of person “Romiosyne,” harking back to the Roman Empire and its Greek name during Byzantine times. But the character time is pan Mediterranean. Written on the face of its adherents is a smile that says, “I know what is really going on here, under the surface, I am strategically placed and satisfied with my knowledge, but I won’t tell you!”

Such ecology has created a culture of extremes, of “feast or famine” but even when one lives in luxury, access to information and resources must be guarded and this is something that patrons give out to clients. Clients must show gratitude and what the Italians quite sinisterly label respect-”respetto.” Despite national and religious differences this is the hidden code of Mediterranean man, be he Christian, Moslem or Jew. And it is what gives life in this part of the world its sorrows and joy.

Let us suppose, for arguments sake, that the man in the portrait is one of those lovers of things Mediterranean, admittedly a man from a temperate climate, but who from a boyhood of Bible Stories and Homer vowed that he would spend some years of his life searching for the living remnants of this ancient part of the world.

Among the British such desire has produced Arabists, men like Doughty, Burton, Lawrence and Thesiger, all who combined their love of things Mediterranean with either a fear of, or distaste for women. No, the portrait does not reflect that tension and we can imagine him in a friendly chat with any member of the opposite sex.

The North Americans who have come to the Mediterranean often have a bohemian streak, men and women who find in the Mediterranean the ideal place for their artistic musings – Leonard Cohen on his Greek island, Paul Bowles in his house in Tangier, numerous painters and photographers (like the late Rolof Beny) and the many beat writers who made Istanbul their home in the nineteen fifties, immediately come to mind.

An unlabeled sub-category of these late twentieth century romantics are some North American Jews who have come to Israel. The memory of the Holocaust prevents them from completely living the lives of western sybarites in Mediterranean surroundings, but the return to the land of their fathers has brought them face to face with the Mediterranean – the vestiges of the preindustrial world that their grandparents had left behind when they emigrated from the pogroms of the Russian aristocrats and the arbitrariness of Ottoman rule, just before the Great Powers divided up the middle east after WWI.  

The man in the portrait is one of these. I have been told that he has spent years studying and recording its middle eastern musical traditions and that when he plays the oud among Gypsies, Jews and Arabs he has invented a fictitious Moroccan grandmother in order to avoid long explanations for why he plays like a native son. Yet he is responsible enough, does his job and pays his mortgage – but his attraction to the land and its people mirrors the sensuality of the place itself.

He is not alone and there are many like him in the land. There is no name for them in Israel but they know each other when they meet. Driven on the one hand, by the cold reality of anti-Semitism and determined to oppose it with a vibrant and engaged adoption of Israeli identity and concerns, they at the same time maintain a fascination with the Eastern Mediterranean and its ancient habits and strive to become part of its life.

They can be found playing music with Arab villagers, dancing with Yemenite Rabbis, wandering the desert with the last of the Bedouin or just as easily spending time in the Yeshivas of Jerusalem immersed in the Talmud or in glorious Zefat, reading the Zohar. Many of  them are academics and social scientists who use their professional training to indulge in and become close to the cultures of those Jews, Arabs, Christians and Druze who never left the middle east and with whom they secretly identify, as if by inscribing their soon to disappear traditions they can appropriate some of them for themselves and enter into the living secret of the place.

Some of them have followed the path of the Georgian mystic Gurdjieff and some follow a host of ever emerging self-proclaimed prophets of Judaism, or they follow the heterodox sects, which seem to flourish in the Galilee, many of which have yet to be named by anthropologists. 

I know for a fact that the man in the portrait first came to Israel in 1971, an eighteen-year-old visitor, wearing sandals and a nap sack. He traveled by bus and hitchhiked from the Golan heights to the Red Sea, sleeping on the steps of Herzl’s tomb, drinking Turkish coffee, listening to Um Kalsoum, dancing the Hora as a kibbutz volunteer and using the Bible as his tour guide.

What did he see? He saw old men and women on the beaches of Tel Aviv, exercising and doing Yoga. These were men and women who were once plow holding Zionist pioneers, men and women who knew, like Zeev Jabotinsky, that a Holocaust was brewing in Europe and although cursed by their Rabbis as “Hellenizers” came to the land of Israel to rebuild it and be rebuilt by it. Now, under the inspiration of Ben Gurion they did their Yoga on the beach, free men and women in their own country and, free to pick and choose customs from this or that nation, since they had now once again rejoined the family of nations after a two thousand year hiatus.

He also saw the back streets of Tel Aviv with their women of the night – these voluntary or forced exiles from the strict sexual double standard or “code of honor” that still plagues Mediterranean women. He slept in cheap student dormitories among social outcasts and noted the large number of quiet, chain smoking men and women in their sixties who ran them, with a far away look in their eyes and who wore long sleeve shirts in warm weather to cover the blue numbers that had been tattooed to their forearms when they had been inducted into the death camps during their youth.

He also saw women, his age and older, “dressed to kill” and flaunting their bodies at the men on the street who whistled and heckled them as they smiled and walked by. It dawned on him that in the Mediterranean there is little childhood. Girls quickly become women and for men there is none of the extended adolescence of the North American male who spends his twenties (and now his thirties and forties) “finding” himself.

The six-day war had been fought four years earlier. The West Bank was quiet and he freely wandered through Bethlehem and Hebron visiting the shrine of the patriarchs, the tomb of Abraham, which had been closed to Jewish worship for the twenty years since its occupation by the British officered Jordanian Arab legion in 1948. During the six day war, Arab leaders predicted (in actuality they called out for it in numerous speeches and radio broadcasts; I once remember watching a Libyan politician on TV calling for a massager of the Jews “atbach el yahud” as the phrase is commonly used in colloquial Arabic) a massacre of the all the Jews of Israel, the men that is, the women would be spared for the conquerors, as was customary in the middle ages and which is enjoined the Sharia law of Islam.

An old man who had been born in the land before WWI and who as young man had run away from home and had tended horses in the Hashemi royal stables of Amman, told him that the quiet that he had observed was based on shock. The Arabs of the West Bank had imagined that the Jews would do to them what they had planned to do if they had won the war. During that year he freely walked through the streets of East and West Jerusalem while in the Sinai the Egyptians were implementing their war of attrition.

On kibbutz he tasted something, which has long disappeared, a utopian society based on non-material values. He picked fruit, broke rocks and cleared fields and had his first experience of gaining prestige for acts that did not bring money. That world has now disappeared, for the Mediterranean cannot abide that kind of self-denial for more than a generation. It died out once the Romans no longer persecuted the ancient Christians and every time the Jews have gained an iota of material prosperity pleasure seeking has become the norm (as the endorsement of pleasure, in moderation, is one of the key differences between Catholic and Jewish theology).

In 1971 Israel was a society divided into socialist Westernizers, Jews from Arab Lands and Arabic speakers of different faiths. Prosperity was beginning to show its head and tourism brought the world to the doorsteps of everyone. Israel was modernizing, GDP was rising, some people had traveled abroad and more and more, pleasure seemed to be on everyone’s mind.

It could be argued that this was a result of the hedonism of the sixties seeping into Israel, but it is most likely that the east was having its affect. Something that Israelis adopted from Arabic during the sixties is the concept of Keyf. “Allah keyfik” means in both Arabic and Modern Hebrew something worth enjoying, but not in the American sense of “fun.” It is a term that is heard daily and in a sense defines the culture. For behind almost every native born, hard working Israeli Jew and Arab, there exists a pleasure seeker with an oriental  fantasy of idleness and of sitting in one’s secret garden. In 1843 the English explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote that:

the Arab’s kayf…the savouring of animal existence; the passive enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languour, the dreamy tranquillity, the airy castle-building, which in Asia stands in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life of Europe. It is the result of a lively, impressible, excitable nature, and exquisite sensibility of nerve: it argues a facility for voluptiousness unknown to northern regions, where happiness is placed in the exertion of mental and physical powers…where earth commands ceaseless sweat of face

Israel in 1971 was moving out of its Spartan phase and into a phase where the climate and the culture in which all Israelis now found themselves, was beginning to make itself felt.

I know that the man in the portrait returned to Israel, ten years later, after two periods living in Morocco where as a visiting musician who played Arabic music he was made welcome among and was cautiously fascinated by the dwellers of the land of “kayf.” He married and he learned the rules of give and take in a large extended Mediterranean family and, despite his newly acquired roles as husband and father brought his suburban wife back into the ancient Mediterranean, a culture that her father had wallowed in.

Her father spoke Arabic better than he did Yiddish and quoted Arabic proverbs. His favorite food was olives and bread and his son in law bonded with him by watching the Egyptian films that the Israelis authorities played every Friday afternoon. By now Israel was a divided country in a different way, secular/religious, Sephardic/Ashkenazi, Jew and Arab, Palestinian nationalists and Israeli nationalists.

What he had seen as a visitor in 1971 was the dust settling after the storm and what he experienced in 1981 was the next storm. Fundamentalism was gaining hold of the Islamic world and the only hope on the horizon was the maintenance of the peace treaty with Egypt. Socialism was dying, everyone was buying cars, thousands of Israelis were studying abroad and the first signs of Americanization were in the air.

In an intuitive reaction against this dash for the West, the man in the portrait took his wife and one-month-old son to a small village in the Negev close to the Sinai border. For one year, like Moses in Jethro’s tent, he walked and lived among the Bedouin of the Sinai, adopting their customs and learning their ways. The Bedouin, as always, couldn’t understand why he and a minority of adventurers wanted to live among them. They did have an explanation for the spate of archaeological excavations that the Israelis carried out with abandon-they were looking for buried treasure – gold.

There are a small number of Israelis, travelers, archaeologists and ethnographers who after 1967 made the Sinai their home. Some of them spent most of their time wandering among and studying the ways of the Sinai Bedouin. When the Sinai was returned to Egypt each one of them dealt with the shock of their personal exodus in their own way.

The man in our portrait returned to graduate school and soon found himself living among the nomads of the Horn of Africa, camel herders who moved between Somalia and Ethiopia, the prehistoric, cultural ancestors of the Bedouin and Israelites. He had been expelled from his Mediterranean garden.

But after ten years in Africa, with his two children growing up far from their immediate family it was finally time to return to the lands of the wine dark sea, and so go home he went and to a whitewashed house in the Galilee – the last retreat of alternative Israel.

In the late nineties he found a different Israel than that which he had left. One part was religious, the other secular. One part was high tech and making American salaries while the other lived in subsidized poverty similar to Naples and southern Italy.

Yet there was a new generation on the loose, beginning to make its mark on the national culture. Like their ancestors whose lives are traced in the archives of the Cairo Gheniza, young Israelis, unconsciously began to travel the paths of those medieval Jews whose livelihood was based on what historians have called the “India trade.” From Morocco, through the Swahili coast, to India and Southeast Asia, young Israelis have been confronting the non-Biblical societies with whom their ancestors traded.

Israeli youth are now digesting India and bringing Jewish mysticism back with them from the temples and ashrams of the sub-continent. The Yoga of Ben Gurion has returned, but it now comes directly from the source. This reawakening of the east among young Israelis is weaning an entire generation away from Hebrew rock and roll and towards an exploration of their Mediterranean musical roots.

Whereas otherwise the man in the portrait would be thought of as “over the hill” and foreign in the eyes of this new generation, his pursuit of Yoga and long term love of oriental music and culture has given him qualified acceptance among young Israelis who are creating a new form of Israeli identity – not on the Hellenistic model of the Maccabees, but on the that of the Jewish scholars of Cairo, the mystics of Zefat and the medieval Spanish writers of the great Cabalistic classic – the Zohar. The sensuality remains, but more and more, it is now taking a mystical turn as thousands of Israelis search for meaning in a combination of high tech and Cabbala.

Significant numbers of women and men still roam the beaches in search of romance, family festivals go on all night, vineyards are expanding, wine is drunk in greater quantity than ever before, the cafes are crowded  and food remains the national religion, when it is not raining.

Israel is now medieval and modern, secular and religious, but above all, it has become a thoroughly Mediterranean state. Such is the portrait of the country that exists in the mind of the man in the picture, taken as it was on a sunny afternoon in the ancient city of Acco, some years ago. I am quite certain that I have discerned his thoughts correctly for it is my portrait, painted fifteen years ago. The man in the picture is somewhat different from the man I have become, but we are still strongly related.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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