December 21, 2017
It was already past midnight when I finally got around to the only thing on my to-do list that mattered, writing my CV in English. I have seen a lot of days turn into nights and then turn into days since my girlfriend and I met. No amount of encouragement or pleading gets her into bed any earlier. I have given up. My girlfriend is an owl.
At 4 a.m., she got a WhatsApp message from a mother she babysits for whose son was sick and who needed her to come at 10 a.m. and stay with him. By 5 a.m., I had abandoned my attempts to fill in the skills and capabilities section. I was exhausted. The only skill I needed was adjusting to never sleeping again.
I reset the alarm for 8:45, the first of many. The advantage of the alarm clock in a smartphone is the possibility of endless resetting, allowing you to wake up numerous times just to fall back to sleep. At some point, I saw that my girlfriend had gotten a new message from her employer at 6:45, saying she could come at 11:00. The Owl is unable to wake up in the mornings, and I am her alarm clock; I set the alarm for 9:45 and tried to fall asleep again. When it rang, I got her out of bed and made freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee. We didn’t talk; our swollen eyes stared at screens with morning headlines, two addicts.
She left. See you later, mon amour.
I went back to bed. I turned my phone’s airplane mode off; since it was daytime, maybe things were happening in the world that I needed to know about. Sure enough, at 3 a.m., a friend from Israel had sent an urgent message. This friend adopted my cat, Suzie, when I left for France; lately, Suzie has been engaged in fierce nightly battles with another cat that’s been intruding on his territory. Territorial struggles are a common occurrence in the Middle East, but these nightly scuffles disrupt my friend’s sleep and anger the neighbors. My friend had woken up to a new round of fighting only half an hour after she fell asleep after the last fight. But this time Suzie was injured, with an open wound on his face and a red eye.
My friend was fed up and asked me to find Suzie a new home. But I have nowhere to take him. Israel is swarming with cats. No one wants to adopt Suzie.
After that, I couldn’t sleep. I decided to cook the adzuki beans I’d started soaking the night before. I texted my friend, asking if she was awake. Not only was she awake, she had just finished an art lecture in a middle school in Ramat Gan. I suggested she put Suzie to sleep; I knew she would reject this idea but hoped I could buy Suzie more time. And, of course, she refused to consider it: Just find him a new home, she said. Also, she reminded me, it’s illegal to put a healthy cat to sleep.
Back in bed, I texted with other friends about putting down an unwanted but healthy cat. The resounding answer was that it’s immoral, though it’s done. The most original suggestion came from a French friend who suggested I send him to a refugee camp. Why don’t I give him to my girlfriend’s family in Israel as a substitute? someone else suggested. Or I could give him to my uncle who just got married, as a wedding gift. One person volunteered to take him to the vet; another admonished me for even thinking of putting him down: Bring him to Paris, she said, or at least try finding a home for him through Facebook. My eyes burned and my head was heavy. Can’t you take him? I asked, desperate. But her dog doesn’t get along with cats, she responded. Take him to your mother in the village, he would like it up in the Galilee. But I knew this would seal Suzie’s fate. My mother would never allow him into the house, and he would get hit by a car.
It was already 11:30. French class was at 1:00 p.m., but I was too tired to go. I tossed and turned until my girlfriend texted to see how I was doing. I told her that I couldn’t sleep and was deliberating whether to head to campus at 2:00 for a lecture about the betrayal of Jews in Paris by “denouncers” during WWII. It was bound to be a depressing lecture, I said; I also promised I wouldn’t betray her, and if our neighbor snitched, I would claim I was also Jewish. She said she didn’t understand what I was talking about and said I should go. I dragged myself out of bed.
There was no time for coffee. I ate an apple in the elevator. As I ran to the metro, I got a voice message from my sister, a recording of a stray cat that had appeared at their door and wouldn’t budge. I had a brief, delirious thought: cats were taking over Israel. That didn’t seem like the worst thing that could happen.
I couldn’t bear to meet the eyes of a Syrian refugee woman who searched mine as I entered the metro station of Porte de Vanves. Her lips were moving slowly, muttering; her sign was in French (“J’ai faim”), but her words were in Arabic, my language. She reminded me of my grandmother. I didn’t allow them to form a story, for fear it would break my heart.
On the train, I glanced at the free local papers that I had grabbed on the way. They lack opinion or criticism; I read them mostly to practice my French. But in CNEWS, in the “Good to Know” column, there was an article explaining the origin of the “santons,” the small figurines of the saints that are common during the holiday period. They were a reactionary response to the anti-religious fervor of the French Revolution: the “santons” allowed Christians to maintain their religious practices during Christmas, in their homes, away from the vengeful eyes of the revolutionary forces.
When I first arrived in Paris, I loved riding the metro. There isn’t one in Israel, so taking the train felt like proof that I was a true metropolitan. That feeling faded.
I got off at Montparnasse to catch another train, and while waiting I got an email informing me that my paper on Arab-Jewish relations in Mandatory Palestine had been accepted for a history conference in Seville, in July. This would be my first conference presentation. I walked past more Syrian refugees, an entire family huddled on the steps of the metro. Again, I avoided their glances. A French homeless man entered the train car, about my age. He didn’t appear to be on drugs or have any of the stereotypical characteristics associated with homelessness. But the homeless in Paris tend to look “normal.” In a monotonous tone he started telling his life story. It was a sad story. I gave him two euros and ran on.
When I reached the campus, I was already a bit late. The lecture was in room AS_24, which the concierge said I could find on the ground floor.
Paris’s cold makes you dress in layers. I could smell my sweat through my clothes and realized I’d forgotten to put on deodorant. I ran down the corridor of the ground floor, looking for room AS_24. But all of the rooms began with AS1. Assuming there had been some mistake, I entered room AS1ֹֹ_24. The hall was packed, and all eyes turned toward me as I walked in. The lecturer was talking about Egyptian rap. I left the lecture hall to continue looking for AS_24. I asked some students in the cafeteria, but no one knew; the concierge again directed me to the ground floor. A feeling of helplessness rose in my chest. The long white corridors and the bright fluorescent lights were exhausting. I returned to the lecture hall I had stumbled on earlier.
The lecturer was talking about a Palestinian rap group that was founded in one of the refugee camps in Lebanon. There was no chance that the topic of this lecture was related to the Holocaust. Or was there? I always leave room for the improbable possibility. But as I listened, I realized I was missing the event I had come for. Was this incidental mix-up somehow symbolic, a reminder of a fate that might have been mine? I grew up Palestinian in Israel, but I might have been the son of Palestinian refugees in Europe, like these youngsters. The lecturer described the difficult life these rappers face; they lack status, it is clear, but not identity. I was raised on traditional Palestinian and Arabic music, not rap. The lyrics of forgotten poets were wrapped in music, full of pain and longing, but I was taught that you sing and dance only for weddings and funerals. Perhaps this is why I don’t go to concerts and feel uncomfortable dancing.
During a break, I asked a participant about the title of the lecture. It was a seminar with several speakers on borders and refugees. Further inquiries didn’t bring me closer to solving the mystery of the original lecture. Room AS_24 seemed not to exist. I bought some chocolate from the vending machine and decided to stay for the rest of the seminar; the topic interested me. We are all refugees to some degree: Jews escaped from Paris during WWII, Syrians escape the ravages of war, and Palestinians sing of a lost homeland.
The next lecturer spoke about photography and memories of communism in Albania, particularly among the common folk. The topic was foreign to me, but it reminded me of the camera my uncle had when I was a child. He would photograph major family events and holidays, but sometimes just everyday life. Today, everyone is a photographer, but there are no more cameras, just phones.
When the seminar finished, I looked for the secretary of the department that organized the lecture I had missed, but she had already gone home. Maybe there had been no such lecture; clearly there was no room AS_24.
My phone battery was running low, so I decided to return home by bus. The ride is picturesque and less stressful than traveling underground. At the peak of rue de Rennes stands the Montparnasse Tower. Sometimes it seems ugly and sometimes it is beautiful. Paris was dressed up for the holiday celebrating the birth of the most famous Galilean in the world. I felt proud.
The bus was brand new, with an impressive wide aisle designated for baby carriages and the handicapped. I stood in one of the aisles, as there were no empty seats. I looked at the other passengers. There was an elderly woman who was standing holding on to a pole, waiting for the bus to stop at a station so she could reach an empty seat in the back. She wouldn’t risk making a move while it was going. I wanted to extend my hand, but she didn’t need my help. At one of the stops, two young children boarded with their nanny. They spoke in loud voices and giggled. They read out loud the names on all the street signs as the bus passed. I was reminded of Pound’s words: “petals on a wet, black bough.” Lost in Paris.
The sky darkened as night fell. I was tired and eager to get home. In the elevator, the phone was ringing with a call from the USA. I texted back, requesting to speak in several minutes. The beautiful owl had just returned home as well: also exhausted and hungry. I told her I was expecting a call and that I needed to prepare for the conversation. I made myself a cup of tea, sat down, and waited for the phone to ring.