Twilight Zone / Just like us, but less
Street-cleaners, dishwashers, day laborers - all of them people we pass
every day on the street without even glancing at them - gather at yet
another ecstatic Eritrean celebration, held in the best central bus station
By Gideon Levy <http://www.haaretz.com/misc/writers/gideon-levy-1.402
* Latest update 11:23 27.02.2012
It was one of the longest weddings I've ever attended: After almost six
hours of near ecstasy, when I made my way home, the wedding cake had not yet
been served and the wild dancing was still going strong.
Every weekend there are at least 10 such Eritrean weddings, all in Tel Aviv,
and we didn't know about them. We didn't know that those "transparent"
people - those who work as street sweepers, on the frames of buildings and
in restaurant kitchens - also have a world of their own. It is a world of
crazy music and great joy, even if it is mingled with the sadness of people
who dance by night, but are frightened and humiliated by day.
"I'm somewhat in shock. Suddenly I see they have a real life here," says the
groom's boss, from Cafe Neto. The boss had come with his two partners to
celebrate the wedding of his cook; the other guests were all dressed up, and
they had come in jeans.
No, the employer admits, he has no idea how many years his Jamal has been in
Israel, where he lives or who his new wife is. He only knows that Jamal's an
"excellent worker," that he's a "special guy" and that he's been given a day
off in honor of his wedding - a one-day Eritrean honeymoon.
The streets that spill over into the environs of the old Tel Aviv central
bus station have Zionist names: Hagdud Ha'ivri (the Jewish Brigade) and
Yesod Hama'ala (one of the earliest Zionist settlements, in the northern
Galilee), are bustling on this particular Saturday. At 5 P.M., on this
stormy day, the hangouts of the Sudanese, the Ethiopians, the Eritreans, the
Filipinos and the Chinese are full of people. There are bottles of beer on
the tables and the flickering television screens air programs in a host of
Rental apartments in the area are bursting with tenants and their
belongings, the prices are going sky high - higher than in upscale Ramat
Aviv Gimmel - because there's no other part in the city where people are
willing to rent places to foreigners.
"There's life on the shoulders - don't trample it," says a shop sign near
the station, with an Israeli flag in the background, referring to cyclists
on the roads.
Evening comes to Levinsky Park nearby, and with it the night chill. The
volunteers from the Lasova nonprofit association, which provides food,
clothing and shelter to immigrants and other people in need, are
distributing hot meals. The line is getting longer. The justice minister was
quoted in the newspaper the other day as saying these miserable asylum
seekers are "an existential danger" to the State of Israel." In another
paper a member of the Tel Aviv city council proposed running separate buses
for foreigners "because of their smell."
Meanwhile, ducks are swimming in a puddle on Hahaganah Street, there's an
illuminated office building belonging to the Mountain Moving Company - and
here is the catering hall we're looking for, hiding in the backyard of an
ugly gray building near the ramp to the Ayalon Highway, not far from the Tel
Aviv branch of the Yisrael Beitenu party.
You go down a few steps and already the music is deafening. This is a
factory that was recently transformed into an Eritrean catering hall: White
fluorescent light illuminates the cheap red carpets covering the floor,
colorful balloons float up toward the ceiling, and there are row upon row of
long tables, covered with flowered plastic tablecloths.
Three elegantly dressed Eritreans sit at the entrance, behind two cartons
that look like ballot boxes, with a pile of white envelopes next to them.
Each guest takes an envelope, writes his name and his congratulatory message
on the front in Tigrinya, the "local" language, puts a banknote or two
inside and inserts it in the box.
Just like us, but less: NIS 100-NIS 200 per guest. Just like us, but less:
These people don't pile up the food on the plates. Just like us, but more:
Some of the guests here are far more elegantly dressed than we are, on
Here is the finest in central bus station fashion: two- and even three-piece
suits made of shiny fabric, the pride of the well-known fashion house Pogal
Classic, whose name appears on the sleeves of the suits. The less well-off
guests came in their work clothes.
The women are a negligible minority here. Their hair is sculpted - each head
is a work of art - and they are wearing beautiful embroidered African
Rolls of toilet paper serve as the house napkins, a roll of it on every
table; the wedding feast is served on disposable plates. It's a buffet:
Behind the counter stand the female servers, also elegant in appearance,
serving the best of traditional cuisine: On a bed of spongy injera bread,
they serve a chicken-and-bean dish. There's no cutlery, and the Carlsberg
flows like water.
A royal canopy has been set up at the end of the hall: two white armchairs
sit in the shadow of the canopy, one for her, one for him; next to them, two
rows of chairs also covered in white, for the bridesmaids and ushers. On two
glass tables there are two bottles - Johnny Walker Red Label and Finlandia -
for the bride and groom, who got married this morning in a Jaffa church. A
colorful poster in the background bears portraits of the couple: Jamal
Yohans and Amleset Tesfaldet.
The mother-in-law was not there to tell the waiters what to do, but an uncle
and aunt are here, straight from Holland. Dessie Fessehazion and Wezenet
Bakray arrived yesterday from the Dutch town of Zwolle. She is the bride's
aunt; her partner is dressed in traditional all-white, including a turban
and a staff in his hand.
The two have been living in Holland for the past 30 years, and received full
citizenship after only four years. Now they swear that they'll never set
foot in Israel again: They were delayed at Ben-Gurion airport for three
hours, after declaring they had come for the wedding - which is actually an
illicit wedding of illegal residents. In another moment they would have been
expelled; only at the last second did the Israeli immigration authorities
change their minds and miraculously allow them to enter. The couple is
sleeping in a hotel room by Jamal's boss. This evening they are apparently
the responsible adults here, the only representatives of either of the
A wedding band with a keyboard player, a singer and a musician playing an
electric Eritrean stringed instrument offers lively wedding music. Aklilu
Mekonnen is the wedding photographer. He has lived in Jerusalem for 17
years, and is actually the official wedding photographer of the entire
community, with a blog on which he presents his work. Abel, a cute Eritrean
boy of 11, a student at the Nofim school , also takes pictures. And there
are also two video photographers, just in case.
The smell of the food wafts in the air. The guests are waiting for the bride
and groom. Aklilu says it's impossible to get a limousine in Tel Aviv on
Saturday nights: The Eritreans rent them all. Amleset and Jamal will be
arriving soon in a taxi. The men stand shoulder to shoulder, offering a
masculine Eritrean embrace; the women kiss their cheeks. Outside they're
already trying out the fireworks.
It is nightfall, and the big moment has arrived: The usher-and-bridesmaid
pairs enter the hall with dancing steps, wearing identical clothing - purple
dresses for the women, gray suits and purple ties for the men. They make
their way slowly toward the canopy, until the moment arrives: Amleset and
Jamal enter. She wears a beautiful dress sparkling with sequins, a train and
a generous decolletage; he is in a very elegant suit, the tie studded with
sparkling stones. They also walk slowly, in measured and rhythmic dancing
Actually they look like the least happy people here this evening. The
photographer Aklilu tells me that the match was made by their parents in
Eritrea. So Amleset came to Israel ostensibly because of love. The fireworks
pop and sparkle, the band plays, there are sounds of celebration, and the
new couple take their places on the white armchairs beneath the canopy, to
the cheers of the crowd.
A circle of guests break into a dance and the floor becomes increasingly
crowded, mainly with perspiring men, many of whom are extremely graceful. A
machine fires soap bubbles until the entire space is filled with delicate
illusions. The dancing becomes increasingly wild, creating a breathtaking
sight. Between one African song and the next is suddenly heard: "Dance with
me tonight, a romantic dance in the moonlight" by Israeli singer Yishai
One of the ushers, Sammy, who works on ordinary days as a cleaner in the
Carmel Market and says he was harshly abused on his way to Israel via Egypt,
serves us vodka, straight from the wedding table. Today we're the foreigners
At 11 P.M., we head out into the night. On the remains of a platform in the
old bus station sits an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast warming his bare
feet by a bonfire that he has made for himself. A violent fistfight erupts
outside the door of another Eritrean wedding in the station complex. Under
the playground equipment in Levinsky Park, the latest ones to arrive in
Israel, those who haven't found a place of refuge as yet, are curled up.
Good night, wedding; good morning, reality.
Eritrean wedding - Levac - 2.2012
Jamal Yohans and Amleset Tesfaldet during their wedding reception.
Photo by: Alex Levac
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Received on Mon Feb 27 2012 - 12:22:30 EST