“Ladies and gentlemen, the fasten seatbelt signs have been activated and could we please ask you to return to your seats. Although we have yet to begin our descent, we are not permitted to enter Israeli airspace if anyone is standing in the cabin. Thank you for your patience.”
The announcement fizzles out and I glance out of the window, half-expecting to see military jets escorting us in. There are none. I put my book down (One Day, by David Nicholls – a book that despite its potential to be nauseating was actually very enjoyable) and casually resisted the temptation to stand up, just because. Another quick window-check reassures me that Israeli fighter pilots are not inspecting my every move from outside. Nevertheless, I stay seated. Stereotypes of a controlling, security paranoid nation abound, and I risk a further peek at the deserted sky before returning to my holiday reading.
First impressions. ‘They’ say it takes on average 30 meetings to undo one, and whilst that is typically tabloid the gist is a take-home truism. Israel was already not doing well, and as I would later discover Israelis in general seem to go out of their way to make as poor an initial impact as possible. I was regularly confronted by rude, cold, uninterested and brusque characters, which seemed to be exacerbated by my inability to speak Hebrew, psychically determine the availability of items, and anything involving driving. Not, of course, that everyone I met fit so well within that description – far from it – but I’d put the figure at around 3 in 4.
My experience is not an isolated one. Israelis themselves recognise and, to a degree, cultivate this attitude. The Hebrew term they use is sabra, meaning ‘prickly pear’. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular produce, a prickly pear is a sweet-tasting fruit covered in tiny, hair-like spines that sink invisibly into the skin, resulting in hours-to-days of soreness and frustration. As one market seller put it: ‘Israelis are sabra. Prickles on the outside, but sweet on the inside.’ Since, the term sabra has come to mean a native-born Israeli – the group with whom a certain sharpness has become most strongly linked.
Example. My great aunt is 3rd generation sabra. The scene is lunch at her house, after the clearing of the table, and my sister and I are sitting quietly on the sofa. Without warning, my aunt springs from her chair, points an accusing finger in my direction and squawks “ICE CREAM!” I am taken aback: have I spilt some previously-undetected vat of the frosted substance? Should I have found some to provide to the guests? I shift and glance at my sister, who is equally taken aback. It takes a second to realise the translation is merely tonal, that rather than our having committed some terrible, unwitting, iced-dairy related crime we were instead just being offered some ice-cream. Only here, I thought at the time, could an offer of succulent frozen deliciousness be made to sound like the threat of death by firing squad.
I land at Ben Gurion International Airport and pass through customs without incident. Aside from a not-too-secret-secret-agenty type at baggage collection, it is just like any other airport I’ve ever been through. Than man who offers to load our bags into the shuttle is brusque, businesslike, and on the motorway I have my first taste of the arrogant and frankly dangerous Israeli driving style. The receptionist at our hotel (I know, but it was my sister’s 21st birthday!) is cold, and does not engage with me. That first shimmering mirage of an impression sets, as concrete, apparently permanent. The future waits, erosive potency in hand, just around the corner.
Watch this space.