Animal Review Makes the scene: A. and O.
We (A. & O.) received free tickets, courtesy of a large shipping company, to a dress rehearsal of the a Israeli Opera, "Alpha and Omega." The papers created a serious hype around it. The composer, Gil Shochat, is 27, and the libretto, already praised by several critics as splendid poetry in the great tradition of Alterman, was written by Dory Manor and Anna Herman. Manor is a young (29?) acclaimed poet and translator; Herman is a pseudonym of a mystery figure. They communicated, Manor said, by frequent international phone calls (he lives in Paris).
I hate, hate, hate operatic singing. The singers study intensively for years and practice endlessly to perfect a diction that makes understanding the lyrics utterly impossible. Perhaps that’s the reason librettos are notoriously lousy and stupid? I once heard a musicologist express puzzlement over this issue: how come screaming untrained rock singers are more comprehensible than the fat ladies, not to mention the crystalline, lucid pronunciation of folk singers and other amateurs. This was beautifully demonstrated here: the libretto was screened above the stage, and still it was almost impossible to follow the singers - and the singing was not in Italian or German, it was in my own holy language. It’s probably because opera singers don’t sing, they make noises, using their voices as instruments. I prefer Karen Carpenter and Nechama Hendel. The music itself was rich and diverse, with neo-romantic influences. Shochat turns his back on the avant-garde and atonal music, and uses elements from popular music, cabaret etc., or so I gather from the papers. Some of it was nice, especially the more melancholic bits, some sounded like the soundtrack of a romantic Hollywood movie from the fifties. The staging, décor and dresses owe much to Lindsey Kemp, Victorian masquerades and Alien IV. The animals' Purim costumes were truly cute.
The opera was inspired by a series of lithographs by Edvard Munch. It describes a primordial couple, a sort of Adam and Eve, in a wild landscape by the sea, and various animals. The storyline is as follows: Alpha and Omega are in love - a perfect, pure, innocent love. At night Alpha has a dream, and early in the morning he sets out to get hold of a potion that will prevent Omega from falling in love with, or lust for, anyone else but him. While he is away, the snake comes by and seduces Omega. Shortly afterwards she gives birth to a litter of little snakes. The madly jealous Alpha kills them, and as a result Omega becomes a sort of a nymphomaniac and begins to have hot sex with animals on the island. The animals (they are a Greek chorus, narrating the story, consulting the heroes and so on) are overwhelmed by her sexual prowess. The last one is the Hyena. The Hyena’s eyes are magic diamonds that foretell the future - this is based on a medieval legend - and Omega discovers, but refuses to believe, that Alpha will murder her. Soon afterwards she gives birth to a horde of mongrels that crawl all over the stage, looking like hydrocephalitic babies or the aliens described by victims of abduction. The madly jealous Alpha kills Omega, and in revenge the mongrels kill him, raising their bloody hands up in the air in a gesture well remembered from the lynchers in Ramallah who made headlines a short while ago.
Although full of animals, the libretto is not about animals - they are all just symbolic entities, as are the humans. The animals set themselves apart from the humans, which they call "upturned animals," and at the beginning tell the snake he has no chance of tempting Omega, since these creatures are bonded by a "hot glue called love," unknown to animals; but the smart snake manages to seduce her by appealing to her biological urge to have babies. That much is explicit in the text; one interpretation that came to my mind was that the snake is a good guy, who fights against racism. A. & O. are pure Aryans, and it really kills A. to learn that O. has sex with lesser creatures, and has fun doing it. Oh well, I can go on about it. In any case, the writing is definitely the work of a virtuoso.
After the show we ran into Benny Ziffer, editor of "Haaretz" literary supplement, in the lobby – he wrote an apotheosis of Manor last week - and he introduced us to Manor; we complemented him and said we bought the libretto book, and he shyly thanked us. Than we hmmmmmed and humpfffed for a few minutes and drove away. We entered a cafe in Yakum on the coastal road. O. had Greek Salad and found a piece of sharp plastic in her mouth, so we didn’t pay and received some groveling and a dulce-de-leche cake to take away as compensation.
Maps are the tools of ideologists and politicians as much as explorers and navigators. The reason must be quite simple - maps have shapes, and when a rather obscure entity such as "homeland" takes on a distinctive shape, it can become a popular icon. People learn to like it. The map of Israel has gone through many changes, but a few physical features remain unchanged: the long sloping shoreline, with the bulge of the Carmel on top; the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, connected by the Jordan. But up until the early fifties – if you look at map-icons of early Zionism, drawn on the collection boxes of the Keren Kayemet Leisrael (Jewish National Fund), children’s books, posters, logos, monopoly boards – there was another small feature, right on top of the sea of Galilee. It was called the Hula (pronounced "khuLAH")– a small lake in the great Syrian-African rift. Driven by ideological fervor, half-baked ideas about development, and probably political opportunism – at least that is the prevailing consensus nowadays* - decision-makers of the newborn state resolved to dry it up and get rid of this little zit on the map. I sincerely believe that the hidden driving force behind the decision was aesthetic in nature. It was a graphic designer’s decision: “We need something simpler, with more fluid lines, something more distinct and easily recognized,” the expert told the committee, and the dredgers were sent off. And indeed, during school years, every Israeli encounters teachers or lecturers who, with one swift movement, draw a sketchy map of Israel on the blackboard; their work has become so much easier with the irritating little Hula wiped off.
When I was a kid, my auntie's place was a treasure house of music and books. One of my favorites was an album of photography called 'The Dying Lake’, with artistic black-and-white pictures of Ha-Hula just before the disaster. Peter Marom was the photographer, and I think he wrote the text as well: it was a gentle dirge, a farewell to the disappearing landscape, full of sadness and acceptance. Pelicans starred the album, as well other migrating birds; it was an important stop on their annual route, and sometimes the final stop, their home for the winter. I can't be certain, but I'm fairly sure a series of pictures was dedicated to one wounded pelican left behind by his flock and adopted by kibbutz kids. It was very emotional: I remember a lonely pelican-silhouette on dark, calm water, and the small dots in the distance – the flock, flying away to the Sudan. I have some rather vivid visual memories of the pelican (though I’m beginning to think I’m confusing two separate books) – a funny looking bird, described later as hot tempered, aggressive and cheeky. How it became a symbol of the atonement and the sacrifice of Jesus in Christianity is beyond me - there’s some background story of fictional zoology explaining this; under no circumstances could a pelican become a symbol of anything in Zionism. You had to be a respectable, handsome animal - a deer, a lion, an eagle - to symbolize the new Jew returning to his homeland, defending his home and crops; or else, a useful animal - a cow, a sheep (there’s a famous photo of Ben-Gurion feeding a curly sheep) or even a dog - a watchdog. But not a pelican. So ‘The Dying Lake’, perhaps unknowingly, was rather subversive: it was a defender of green issues long before anyone considered them issues; it mourned the disappearance of a unique ecological system full of pointless animals, ignoring the fact that Israel “gained 30,000 dunams of land,” though it turned out to be mostly uncultivable, and "drained the anopheles-infested swamps," where malaria all but disappeared 30 years earlier. Besides, it told the little drama of a lonely wounded pelican, its miraculous deliverance and recovery, a story of no national symbolic significance I can think of. I believe that in the spring, on their way back to Europe, his pelican friends landed nearby and he joined them, fully recovered. But I may be confusing two different books.
* The KKL official web site still describes it as “the great national enterprise of draining the swamps of Ha-Chula.”
Camels and Michael Palin
I saw Michael Palin camel-hunting on TV. It sounds like something out of one of those "Mad British humor" films, but that's not what it's about. Palin, with his gloomy smile, is in fact a pretty good actor (the TV series GBH, for example), not just a Monty Python clown; but he dedicates most of his time to well-documented travels to far-off exotic lands, as Victorian gentlemen used to do. However, being a product of the second-half of the last century he gracefully avoids most of the sins of the white man, and is as politically correct as the next guy. It’s true that he seems to have some basic, well-concealed misanthropy – or at least a sense of wonder at the insanity, evil and stupidity that seem to guide people’s lives everywhere; but he scatters this feeling in a completely egalitarian way. And yet, I suddenly saw him hunting camels.
The background story is full of fascinating details, which can be obtained elsewhere, but here are the rudimentary facts: builders of the Australian railway used camels; foreign workers from Afghanistan drove them. Once the work was completed and the train operated, there was no use for them; they were abandoned, or escaped into the wild. The environment was welcoming: they not only survived, but were fruitful and multiplied and did well in general for more than a century. Now – perhaps for quite a while already – they are being hunted. There’s a market demand for camels, for menageries, circuses, amusement parks and so on. Palin joined the hunters. "I merely asked if I could come along for the ride and watch," he apologized afterwards; but almost immediately they shoved a lasso into his hands and ordered him to put it around the neck of an escaping wild camel. He later claimed most of his efforts were dedicated to desperately hold the railing in order not to fall off the speeding 4x4 with the special little platform for the hunters. But he was definitely an accomplice. When the female camel was brought down, he sat triumphantly on her back. It seemed obvious he was somewhat shocked and embarrassed, and that the episode came as a surprise, but the film was edited and ended up on our screen, and the most memorable thing was the misery of the hunted animal.
We are used to domesticated camels, slow, saddled, decorated with beans and raffia, funny-faced, knee-blistered, swaying their buttocks, quiet, obedient; but these agile, fast-moving camels, dodging, fooling the drivers with sudden turns, looked like noble, beautiful creatures, living a healthy, natural life; they were born on the Australian desert, and though camels never lived there, they turned with time as native as the kangaroo, the koala and the wallaby, just like other immigrant animals in Australia.
The chief hunter was pleased with his prey – the female camel appeared tranquil and showed no resistance. Palin continued to reassure us, or himself, that the hunters’ main interest is to keep the camels unharmed; that they are taken to a farm for several months of pampering before they are sold, and so on. But the female camel watched, stunned, as the herd in which she grew, with which she wandered from one oasis to another, where she may have had calves, the smells of its members she knew since she was born, was galloping away, and she was tied with ropes and led to the truck.
A. opened a rolled-up poster of Maccabi Haifa*, her favorite football team, and a wasp flew out and stung her little finger. The pain was horrible, judging by the volume of her screams. Long seconds of confused helplessness passed. I tried to remember, in vain, the right thing to do when stung by a wasp, but could only recollect other intriguing details from the Broadcast University book 'The Oriental Wasp': Wasps build their nests in a perfectly vertical position, guided by the earth's gravitational field, as proved when several active nests were sent off to space on the space shuttle Endeavor. They were clearly affected by the no-gravity situation and their nests got crooked. As to first aid for wasp sting casualties, my mind was completely blank. I offered to put her hand in water, and began to wonder whether cold water is better, or perhaps lukewarm -- the correct answer is cold, and it's recommended to put ice on the affected area, as we discovered after consulting another book, 'The Way Out - Survival Guide.' My confusion was partly due to an interesting zoological fact, which stuck to my mind a long time ago: The venom of many marine creatures is based on proteins and destroyed by heat, so using ice is quite useless as treatment whereas heating can spare the victim lots of unnecessary pain. Basically, all we could offer is sympathy, hugging and encouraging words. We later called a doctor but he had nothing new to tell us. A. continued to cry and loudly complain about the pain, and also to direct protests of a more philosophical nature ("Why me?") To some great waspian divinity while simultaneously praying for the wasp's long, agonizing death. I could sympathize, and never even tried to quote the "Wasps sting for their protection" sentence from the book. After the initial turmoil was over I went to her room to find the guilty party. I located the wasp quite easily near the lamp. With lethal efficiency I sprayed an unreasonable overdose of multipurpose insecticide on the threatening, buzzing creature, attired in the shocking colors of Beitar Yerushalayim**. It slowly dropped to the carpet and with some toilet paper I carefully collected the still fluttering creature and put it into a nylon bag. The antennae kept moving for a while inside. A. looked at it hatefully, her eyes still red with tears.
In the morning she told us the dream she had: A wasp stung her, so we all went to a cemetery to pick a gravestone for her. We were singing, and people - including a woman who looked like a librarian - hushed us. She chose a stone with a cat, and the cat was moving and smiling (this is a direct Harry Potter effect).
*Maccabi: She's being rebellious, or tries to avoid being exposed to the violence of classmates. I'm a fan of the municipal Antichrist, Hapoel [the worker -ed.], like all intelligent, left wing, socially conscious, law-abiding citizens. Maccabi is for lowlife scum. Hapoel just won the Derby [like a subway series -- two teams from the same town -ed.] against Maccabi 3:0, so the civilized world is saved in the short run.
[**Beitar: Beitar began as a revisionist paramilitary organization in the 20s, I think. Fans sometimes wear pendants depicting a state of Israel that appears to include Damascus and Baghdad. They are known for cheering, "Death to the Arabs!" ed.]
Mishkenot Shaananim and the Israeli Science Fiction and Fantasy Association announced the cancellation of a conference dedicated to “The Apocalypse,” which was planned to take place between December 28 and January 1 in Jerusalem and Megido. Larry Niven was to be the guest of honor. The cancellation was “due to the situation.” One Haaretz columnist thought this very amusing. So do I, but I was really hoping to be there, or even review the conference; Megido, or Armageddon, is a 45-minutes drive from Haifa when traffic is busy.
Back in late 1998 or so I was planning to write a best-selling thriller. The idea was to ride the wave of the end-of-the-millennium hysteria. I’ve lost the notes I made, but the basic plot had to do with mad American extreme-right Zealots, joining forces with local Jewish loonies, to bring about the apocalypse in case it didn’t happen on its own. The bad guys were supposed to have an awesome biological weapon, a deadly virus that attacks specific ethnic groups based on their genetic structure. The possibilities for developing the theme appeared to be infinite. The co-author was to be Mr. David Pupco (a long story) and I even had the opening scene written down: a child from kibbutz Megido is looking for his lost puppy near a nice spring that flows not far from the Megido intersection. Horrible occurrences follow.
This opening scene was homage to a very famous Israeli children’s book: 'Where is Pluto?' Pluto is a puppy from Kibbutz Megido. He has all he needs - soup and a bone. But in fact he is tired of being alone. So he sets out looking for company. He meets a strange beautiful creature that flies away - a butterfly; in the pond he meets a wise fish that tells him: “A dog in the water? No no, this is bad. My friend, you should quickly go back to dry land.” He later visits the cowshed, asking the cow for whipped cream, races a horse carriage, and has other adventures, but in the end he comes across his pal Gadi, who tells him: “Where have you been, Pluto? I’ve been looking all over for you.” Then they run along together to have dinner.
'Where is Pluto?' was written by Lea Goldberg, a very prominent poetess, I don’t know when. I have no idea whether Goldberg was familiar with Disney’s Pluto, but the illustrations bear some remote resemblance. This could well be a coincidence, as exposure to American popular culture was minimal until about two decades ago. The story is narrated in charming rhymes, and has become a classic.
Most Israelis know about the very existence of Megido mainly from this book and from school outings to archeological digs in the area. I learnt the meaning and significance of Armageddon - a distortion of the Hebrew words “Har Megido” (Har means “Mount”) - when I was well over sixteen, and most Israelis are probably familiar with the term only from the Schwarzenegger film. We have enough trouble as it is, and Megido is a nice peaceful place - except for the big prison located nearby, housing mainly prisoners in administrative detention, i.e. Palestinians suspected of, well, something. This is part of "the situation" which brought about the cancellation of the conference. However, my immediate free-association to "Megido" will probably always be the opening lines of 'Pluto.'
I used to love the colorful “Time-Life” albums, especially the one dedicated to madness. The book dealt with its subject matter with the assured authoritative air characteristic of popular science books of the sixties. It had many pictures, including paintings by lunatics. At that time I was under the misled impression the madness holds a secret magic, a gateway to hidden worlds of alternative consciousness. Partly, it may have been due to Louis Wain’s series of cat paintings. Wain was an English teacher turned cat painter, who had later lost his sanity and hospitalized in Bedlam, the notorious madhouse that hosted many other visionaries and tortured souls. As his condition deteriorated His sweet, naïve cats gradually turned gloomy, mysterious, threatening and eventually satanic and almost completely abstract. The early paintings were banal and boring; the later ones were riveting- complex, powerful and disturbing.
Years later I was walking in Portobello flea-market. The contents of a thousand imperial attics are poured unto the stalls of Portobello: everything captured, taken by force, bought cheaply or robbed in the course of 300 years in the realms of the kingdom upon which the sun never set is offered for sale. All sorts of Victorian monstrosities – mummified mice, dressed-up as humans in a dollhouse; stuffed trout in a fake aquarium; bright brass navigation equipment, ostrich-feather hats, ivory statuettes, caiman leather wallets – it’s all there, and elderly fire-eaters, jugglers and iron-bending strong men perform on the street if it’s dry. On one stall, between an ancient gramophone and other rare finds, I saw a little framed picture of a cat. I recognized it immediately. I didn’t even remember Louis Wain’s name but I identified his style, and longed to own it. It was nostalgia and a collector’s itch, but, I admit, I was also scheming: it might very well be a valuable item, what with the painter starring on “Time-Life”, I thought; I’ll buy it cheap, and who knows, it may yet turn me into a wealthy man. I browsed the rest of the junk on the stall, pretending to be indifferent and mildly amused, and occasionally asked for the price of some cigarette holder or a brass lock. Eventually I held the cat picture, shrugged my shoulders and sniggered, as if saying: “What else?! So much silly junk. But this could be a present to my cousin, who likes cats.” I asked the guy how much it was. He named a price that was more than twice the budget of the whole trip. Portobello is a place of cold businesslike sobriety.
We were at the peak of the biblical Givat Hamoreh - at least I think it's biblical - looking down on Afula, which is Israel's Springfield, Ohio, or something similar. (When people wanted to ridicule Haifa back in 1948, they'd call it "Afula-sur-mer.") We went there to see irises. It was an isolated spot with a beautiful view, very romantic, and then we heard noises from nearby: loud knocking and banging. A short search revealed two tortoises mating. The male was behind, naturally, knocking away. The sight was mesmerizing. It was at the same time ludicrous and stimulating, repulsive yet irresistible, violent and intimate, just like a porno movie. We watched for a long while.
Tortoises, I once read, have two penises. This makes perfect sense. Many important organs come in pairs - hands, eyes, ears, testicles. Why not penises? The more you think about it the more you wonder. You can lose one kidney, one lung, one leg, and still function. And yet a penis, so vital to preserving the species, has no replacement, like the heart or the brain. But far more pressing for our base earthly existence is the question that naturally follows: would two penises give pleasure a whole new dimension, just as two eyes give us stereoscopic vision? Are we doomed to a flat, two-dimensional, restricted ability to enjoy sex? Does fairness require a similar double standard from the counterpart of the opposite sex?
Years later, while sailing not far from the power plant, A. and Y. saw two sea turtles mate. Water softens everything - there were no knocking sounds. The Britannica tells us that in some aquatic species, the male "gracefully swims backward in front of her while stroking her lores (cheeks) with the excessively long nails of his forelimbs." One sentence later it asserts: "The penis, paired in snakes and lizards, is single in turtles."
Yesterday we celebrated the crossing of the 10,000-sheqel line of our overdraft by going to a really fancy and highly recommended restaurant called "1873." (I'm not very good with dates so I may be wrong.) The place is located in downtown Haifa's German colony, in a very nice old house, probably built in 1872. It has a cozy, homelike atmosphere, but I felt a little uneasy as it reminded me of Mishkenot Shaananim [twee governmental artists' colony -ed.]. I no longer have the urge to order tornado Rossini and similar dishes with 600-gram chunks of red bloody meat - though I still think they taste great - so I ordered a goat-cheese pastry from the business menu, and green salad, both quite delicious. My companion, as food critics and AR contributors term it, had very good pumpkin soup, with saffron and such, and a main course of shrimps in vodka sauce.
I like eating shrimps, in spite of the little scorpion-like tail left in the plate. I don't think of them as what they really are, water bugs. This is not the case with lobsters, which I view as nothing but giant marine cockroaches, and will never eat unless they reach my plate as clean, unidentified pieces of protein. The younger son of my English landlady, Mrs. Ben-Ami - I forgot his name - was a tall skinny fellow, with dark sad eyes and a shy, timid demeanor. Like many Jewish boys and girls from traditional families, he didn't care much about archaic, arbitrary kosher rules and regulations, but didn't want to offend his family, so he chose the elegant solution of becoming a vegetarian. But he told me he ate fish, and when I asked why, he said, after a long pause, in his slow, hesitant voice, "Because they are less intelligent, I suppose." I have no problem with this line of reasoning, but it would certainly present a problem when it comes to shrimps, probably far less intelligent than most fish and yet blatantly non-kosher.
Actually I do have a slight problem with this line of reasoning: it makes the erroneous yet popular assumption of the existence of an evolutionary ladder. Top-ranking creatures, beginning with humans, are more developed, more sophisticated, hence better and more valuable, as compared to reptiles, bugs and fish; it's fine to eat any creature as long as it has an IQ lower than a chicken. The ladder, however, is imaginary. The only criterion in evolution is survival, and it is well known that cockroaches and shrimps do far better than, say, mountain gorillas.
"1872" is closing down in a week or two. Haifa is a tough environment for gourmet restaurants.