Totally Unqualified Middle East Hippy Correspondent. That's my joke moniker as I type updates about what's going on in Israel on my Facebook page. About the gas masks and all. About what it's like to be here in neighboring Israel, as Syria and the atrocities therein draw the attention of the world. As Israel has been warned we will burn if the US attacks Syria.
I moved to this part of the world just about a year and a half ago. From Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. I had been to Israel many times and had never experienced anything remotely dangerous. Although the feeling was always there, the slight whiff of danger. Something could happen. But it never did. Not to me.
Last November, 2012, during the Pillar of Defense was the first time in my life that I experienced military conflict as an actual event in my life. Not a discussion, not a news update. But something that actually that happened, with missiles and explosions and crowds scattering. I don't think I'll ever be the same person. There's Before War Reality Me and After War Reality Me. And now, Syria.
I remember, last October, before things heated up with Gaza, as things began to point to a larger conflict, the threat of it was vaguely exciting, like when a big storm that is predicted...what will it be like?
Like a stream rounding a bend and joining with another to create a larger, faster stream, news updates and chatter began to escalate.
I remember vividly how everything suddenly felt more urgent. The ordinary busses going by were each a target, that you needed to travel from one town to another becomes a consideration.... is it a good idea? Do you absolutely have to go? Oh don't be silly.
And the drum beat keeps rising on the news which you swear you won't obsess on but you do anyway. Your love relationship becomes more pitched, urgent and devoted. Precious. You have coffee with a friend at a crowded cafe and you feel quite brave - yet the danger is there and it's real and you know it because there's a bronze plaque outside this cafe, with the names of the sixteen people who died in a bus bomb in 2003, and you imagine the bits of flesh, the shattered glass, the smoking hulk of the bus, the screams....
And when a missile attack does come you just can't reconcile it. The siren sounds like a distant car horn - but it rises and wails and everybody scatters and you take an extra what seems like ten minutes which is really only 1 second to scatter too, your heart pounding, having gathered up your belongings. And then you wait. Everybody waits while the siren wails. Eyes turn upward. Where is it? Then a sound like thunder - very loud thunder. Then another.
Instantly the crowd disperses and excited chatter begins -where was it? Where did it hit? I heard it was over the sea! No, it was over the highway! They got it right? Was that second explosion the iron dome? You rush home and turn on the TV and flip channels until you can find something in English. CNN won't have the event just yet - it's too soon. You have to listen to Israeli TV, which you can't understand very well but there's pictures. The army denies anything was hit. The missile hit "an open area" is the default IDF line.
Faced with an irreconcilable experience and nobody to tell it to, you log onto your Facebook and post a status update: This happened! Other Israeli Facebook friends instantly warn you DON'T SAY ANYTHING - they look at social media. They want to see where it hit and how successful they were. Delete your posts!
The excitement dies down and you stay glued to the news for hours - where DID it hit? You need to eat, maybe do some work, take a shower but... is that it for today? Will it happen again? Your heart is pounding and it stays pounding for hours. If you take a shower you might not hear the siren. Better not. Where's your ID? Do you have cash? Your neighbors all meet in the stairwell and share information. Where did it hit? Was that Hamas? What are they saying? You hear a siren - your heart STOPS - you turn to run. No, a neighbor says, no that's on the TV. You feel foolish. And traumatized. Everything sounds like a siren.
This repeats the next day. And the next. And the next. Then one day - twice - how can this BE? They already hit us earlier today! Twice today?
Let's meet for coffee, the same friend says. No, better not. The missiles could come. But you can't sustain that. You need groceries. Your phone rings - they bombed a bus on Derek Shaul Hamalech! Did you hear it? Do you see the smoke? Yes, you see the smoke. Where is Derek Shaul Hamalech - due east of that smoke. You take a deep breath and try to stay rational. You go to the grocery one block away and nervously grab some food. There is a bus stop directly in front of the store. Every three minutes or so a bus pulls up. Every time it does, you inwardly cringe, you get ready for a blast of white hot heat and metal. It never comes.
Finally it dies down. It dies out. Then the pundits start analyzing it all. Life goes back to normal. But as you go about your day your hear - is that a siren?! Your heart pounds. No, it's the whine of a motorcycle. Calm down, stupid. Weeks pass and you begin to feel you've earned some sort of red badge of courage. You speak of it blithely to your US friends who have never been through this. They are in awe of you, of this. You feel rather exotic. But in Israel, you are just like everyone else. Except you have been baptized now, into the Middle Eastern experience.
Months go by. You take the bus, you shop, it's hot. You watch the news with a gimlet eye, feeling yourself quite able to differentiate between a skirmish that need not concern you, or a conflict that has the potential to scale up quickly. You become quite adept at this, really.
One day you stand at the bus stop and you think to yourself that many months have gone by since that harrowing experience and that if one stops to think about it, which one shouldn't, but it's too late, you are thinking about it, this will happen again because you live in Israel and it's been happening for over 60 years. This thought, as the bus pulls up, chills your blood. That experience, that memory you made it through? Will be repeated. But when? You don't know. And that fact gives you a sudden sweep of nausea. You don't know. But it will happen.
So this - this Syria thing. If Israel is struck, it will be far, far worse than we had last fall. Far worse. Larger missiles, chemical weapons, shattering glass, wailing sirens, gasping for breath. You watch CNN almost round the clock and post witty things on Facebook about it. You want to understand - to really understand the machinations of it all, the war ships, the claims, the threats - so you become a self appointed home-study expert on Middle Eastern politics. You realize that wanting to understand is a way of coping but you do have to cope so what else is available, really, as a reaction?
You decide to go get your gas mask. You are slack-jawed at the line, the jostling, the shouting, the squabbles. Your understand of Hebrew is finite - you stand to the side and go over numbers - numbers - numbers - how do you say MY number? How do you say the seventy-five numbers ahead of my number? You figure it out and look for some shade. There is none. The white hot Middle Eastern sun beats down on your head. Excuse me? A CNN correspondent taps your shoulder. I couldn't help but overhear that you speak English. Do you mind a quick interview, let me mike you up.
Moments later and the camera is rolling. The reporter stands just to the left of it and nods in concentration as you mumble answers to his questions. You try to say something about Obama and John Kerry and fear but really, you're still listening for your number. Hamesh maod shesh. That's me, that's my number. Finally, almost two hours later, you get your gas mask-in-a-box. You try to think something funny like that you should decorate this box. You say something funny to a friend like it's a party-in-a-box. But later you read on the news that the anti nerve gas injection, Atropine, is not in this box and that nobody got this injection in their boxes. What IS in the box? Strict instructions on the side warn you NOT to open it unless the "Rear Command" instructs you to. How will they instruct us to? On the radio? A loudspeaker? How will I know?
Rumors abound. Get your groceries now. This is our last quiet day in Israel for awhile. These panicked rumors are regularly juxtaposed with expressions of great confidence by sabras (native Israelis) that nothing is going to happen so calm down.
Britain decides not to opt in and you go to bed feeling a little lighter. Maybe it won't happen after all. And even if it does, Israel may not be struck. Netanyahu says we should all stay calm and continue with our routines. Bibi says there is a low chance of our involvement. But in the morning, you see that Obama is determined to strike Syria and the fear rises up in your throat again like acid. Maybe Netanyahu is right, maybe Israel will not be struck. Except that you just read that Hezbollah has moved weapons to the southern Lebanon border. Directed at Israel. Iran says Israel will "burn". Maybe not, maybe not this time.
American friends ask you how you cope and you can't quite answer them truthfully because the truth is you just don't know. You just - do. Dinner must be made. Dishes must be done. Your gas mask sits on your coffee table like a cardboard reminder that you might need it in coming days. You think of the images of young children wrapped in white sheets in Damascus. You imagine their terrible, gasping deaths. But it's time for bed and you just can't take it all in as a reality. Maybe not this time. But sometime.
You know that in the future, when you don't live here, these will be memories, things you can talk about over cocktails, in sepulchral tones, with awed friends, as they gaze upon your bravery, your worldliness. But inside, you'll cringe because you are not brave and that those still in Israel, and in countless other, far worse, far more dangerous parts of the world - Congo, Damascus, Afghanistan - do not have the luxury of thinking of these experiences as brave memories or novel events.
The gas mask looms on the coffee table, a symbol of uncertainty and frustration. Something will happen. If not this time, next time. And I am not brave.