Written by Farida Alvarez
Illustrated by Flavia Felipe
The number 36 bus route is epic. Or just long. My opinion depends on how much civic pride I can muster. It spans northwest to southeast London in a heroic (arduous)
journey from Queen’s Park to New Cross Gate, making appearances in the more humble parts of Maida Vale and the Alexander Fleming Penicillin Discovery memorial at St. Mary’s Hospital where I was born. You’ll then see it soldiering on bravely (trundling) through Edgware Road’s confusing array of pharmacies, shisha terraces and Bahraini rudeboys in their Lamborghinis, before emerging triumphant (traumatised) through Park Lane past the Dorchester and the towering Hilton, all the while steeling itself for Victoria Station and Vauxhall past the all-seeing-all hearing CCTV watchtowers of the MI6 building.
Once south of the river, I like to think the 36 goes a bit rogue. It’s a different London, south of Vauxhall. As a north-of-the-river kind of girl, I like to think I can hold my own round the likes of Oval, still within sniffing distance of the Thames. But once I’ve reached Camberwell or Peckham I know, I feel that I’m out of bounds. The 36 however, belongs just as much to these parts as it does to my ends of London, but I can’t quite get my head around it. I think Agent 36 must enter spy mode once it crosses Vauxhall Bridge with MI6 giving it secret intel. Or perhaps after all these years, 36 has something of a split personality. Growing up in northern Europe with parents from two very different souths; one even more south and alien than the other, I suppose I can relate.
My father is a regular on the 36 route. A long time recurring cast member. He usually makes an appearance at the humble end of Maida Vale, alighting at Edgware Road. He goes there almost daily to do the grocery shopping and to scout for the best prices for lamb and merguez from the Halal butchers. Not because he’s religious, but because it’s cheaper there and you can get the cuts of meat you need when you’ve got a very specific Algerian stew in mind.
On one particular occasion, I boarded the bus with him but was bound for Victoria Station and then onto Gatwick Airport and then somewhere delightful I’m sure, I don’t quite remember. What stands out from that day were my father's words, for several reasons; the main one being he’s not exactly known for making conversation. Suffice it to say, he’s a bit *grumpy.
As a child, I remember noticing we often had a lot of Kosher food in the fridge. When I was old enough to know what that was I remember asking him about it. He simply shrugged and said, -Kosher, Halal…. it’s all the same.
Back when he was growing up in French North Africa, it kind of was the same, that’s the tragic thing. The two tribes lived side by side pretty peacefully for centuries until the colonisers turned them against each other, favouring one tribe over the other, knowing how divisive it would be. But back to my father’s words:
Going past all the Halal butchers, I was reminded of the Kosher/Halal same-same comment he’d made years earlier, and brought it up again.
My father nodded, like he hadn’t changed his mind in the subsequent years, but now I was older, he added the caveat, and the only serious relationship or life advice I can ever recall him giving me. He turned to me and said, quite seriously, on a bus heavily laden with passengers:
-Eat with the Jew, don’t sleep with the Jew..
I could tell from his expression that it was an edict that required no follow-up questions. Struggling to maintain my composure, I swallowed a chuckle but still grinned like a maniac when I heard him say it so earnestly. I looked away to fully release the grin and bit my bottom lip to stop myself from laughing.
Eat with the Jew, don’t sleep with the Jew.
Eat with the Jew, don’t sleep with the Jew.
I said it to myself over and over again, delighting in this new nugget of handed down wisdom, at once racist and utterly risible. I found the old world political incorrectness irresistible. It was delicious, so ….funny! And the use of the definite article like that to refer to a whole people. Who talks like that anymore?!
I was endlessly amused and before I even assimilated what he had just said, my father had rung the bell, bid a curt farewell, and disappeared among the veiled and non-veiled throng of Church Street Market while I sat there smirking all the way to Victoria Station.
Eat with the Jew but…..
*What wisdom was he quoting, I wondered. Was it his own personal brand, or was it something he’d heard his own people say back home? Essentially, an old wives’ tale amounting to “stick to your own”. Whatever prompted it, I knew I’d never take it seriously, although I realised soon enough that while I’d dined with a few, I’d never actually lain with a brother of the Torah and so inadvertently, I had thus far been an obedient little demi-Arab.
~But nothing really happened~
It was some years later that I found myself in Israel, having spent a spell in Jordan visiting a friend and, capitalising on its geographical proximity, had then chosen to travel on to Tel Aviv to visit another friend, opting for the land route. Riding the bus from Amman to the King Hussein Bridge, one of three border crossings connecting Jordan and Israel, I decided my first stop would be Jericho. My little hotel was a twenty minute walk from the bus stop, so I took a pit stop at a cafe for an iced coffee and a chance to cool off and to check the route again on my phone so I wouldn’t have to look again on the street; a vain attempt to shake off my tourist aura. At that moment, I spotted what was undeniably an American emanating big tourist energy. It was a classy energy, I thought; plain navy tee and classic beige Docker pants, dark brown Gortex Timberlands, Eastpak duffle bag. There was nothing offensive about his look per se, and even if it was a bit on the generic side, he was serving an ‘Andy Samberg on an archeological field trip' kind of look, and I liked it.
I sat down at a table opposite him and watched him as he typed away furiously on his phone, brows furrowed and nose in a perma-crinkle.
-Ah, Fuck!! He whispered loudly and angrily. He looked up, wide-eyed, perhaps suddenly remembering where he was. “The oldest, most continuously inhabited city on Earth”, the guidebooks will tell you. I had gone from watching to brazenly staring at him by now, in a way I would never stare at a stranger back home. Sometimes travelling gives you that special sense of social immunity.
So I didn’t look away, embarrassed when he caught my eye. In a very un-English way, I smiled at him instead.
-Hey, he said, in a very American way.
-Alright, I lobbed back with a nod, in a nonchalant London way. He looked down at his phone and then back at me and by way of an apology for his minor outburst, told me his signal was lousy, typical millennial shit. Mine on the other hand had actually been treating me quite well.
-You can use my hotspot if you want, if it’s urgent. He paused for a moment and smiled.
-Well aren’t you the Good Samaritan?, he said eventually, with a big smile,
-Well if you can’t be a good samaritan in the Holy Land .., I countered.
-Very true, he replied and accepted my offer. I gave him the password and as he typed it in, he told me in between huffs and puffs how he had to email his dad about something work related, something to do with his business partners at the architecture firm but I really wasn’t listening that intently. I was still slightly dazed from the heat, and I was distracted by the dent in the bridge of his nose and the very small but perceptible dimple in his chin.
I introduced myself once he had stopped rambling about his work and thanked me for the third time.
-Adam, nice to meet you, he replied.
-From your name, he continued, I’m guessing you didn’t have a Bat-Mitzvah, am I right?
-HA! What gave me away? No I didn’t. Confirmed Catholic actually.
-Catholic? Oh my. Defected?
-No no, nothing like that. Just a mongrel really. I’m half Arab. My dad named me.
But my mum’s a Spanish Catholic so … I bat for Jesus.
-Who was a solid Jew for most of his life...had some big ideas, you know in a way I admire his ambition…
-Well if you’re such a fan, there’s always room for one more on our team, you know.
- Trust me, you wouldn’t want me. I’m a pain in the ass. Like all good Jewish men.
- Yeah I guess, even Jesus was kind of a pain really...
- Even Jesus, he repeated, with a knowing smile.
I was enjoying this irreverent religious banter in the Holy Land. It was refreshing after an incident in Jordan where I was scowled at by pious conservatives and then told I, as a woman, could not enter the mosque wearing trousers, and so from a plastic bag of spares was handed the world’s frumpiest maxi-skirt to cover up my limb shame. All the while, men with ripped, skin tight denim and deep V’s were waved in, no problem.
I held his gaze for a moment. He looked away for a second and reached into his bag.
-Wanna go halves?
He pointed to a four-finger Kit-Kat he’d just fished out of the front pocket of the Eastpak. The dark chocolate kind, which I quite liked.
-Sure, I said.
He delicately peeled the red wrapper off, used his thumbnail to pierce the silver foil down the middle and as he snapped the chocolate wafer treat in half and extended my portion to me, maintaining eye contact as he did, I recalled my father's words. Eat with the Jew, Don’t Sleep with the Jew.
I smiled, a secret smile, and I could tell he was intrigued, and without breaking eye contact, placed around a third of one finger in my mouth, discreetly and oh so gingerly placing my tongue on it first, before snapping down on it with my teeth and breaking a piece clean off. He micro-gulped. It was subtle but I caught it.
Just then, his phone vibrated, once, twice then three times. Sorry, he said. He got up and put his phone to his ear. He’d received three long audio messages. I could hear that it was a female voice. A young woman’s voice. And judging from how sheepish Adam now seemed as he sat down again, It was clear that it was his girlfriend’s voice.
-So where are you headed? the tone suddenly quite impersonal and uninterested.
-Tel Aviv, eventually, I replied.
-Great party town, he answered, like a really unimaginative Lonely Planet writer.
-Yes, so I’ve heard. He avoided eye contact now.
-You? I persisted. So what. I had nothing to lose.
-Jaffa, he said. And then gave me one of those raised eyebrows plus pursed lip combinations before looking away, signifying he was now out of things to say. I nodded, then sat back and closed my eyes. It was good to be out of the heat for a while. And I’ve never been uncomfortable with silences between people. I’d rather silence than inane waffle.
In any case, Rachel, or whatever Adam’s girlfriend’s name was, had obviously got into his head now. I could flirt no more. He began gathering up his stuff.
-Hey - thanks again for the hotspot, he said. I opened my eyes, not realising I had momentarily entered a heat induced meditation.
-Don’t mention it. Thanks for the Kit Kat, I replied.
-Safe travels! he said as he started making his way out.
-Ma-Salam! I said, mock earnestly, with my hand on heart,
-And Shalom to you! he replied with a warm smile, doffing an imaginary cap. And off he disappeared down a dusty road with, what I could feel, was a heavy heart and a mind full of worries.
I closed my eyes again and wondered what would have happened if Rachel hadn’t messaged right then (stupid Rachel). I’d never thought of using my hybrid cultural and religious background to bait anyone before. Using my father’s words to set a thirst trap. It seemed perverse yet the more I thought of it the more I wish I’d got a chance to try it out. On the other hand, I still had ten days left in Israel, what better place to execute my plan. Perhaps, if he’d stayed, Adam and I would have gone out for dinner somewhere. Maybe after a glass or two of the divine Galilee Shiraz, I’d have found a way to work into the conversation how daddy expressly forbade me from having carnal knowledge of a Jew, but that it was perfectly alright to break bread with one. Thus planting the seed, the forbidden fruit. Over a sharing plate of mixed Kosher mezze, licking my lips and taking delicate bites of my juicy lamb kofta, I’d posit the notion that have not all our religious forebears gone for wanders in the desert at some point? Being free, enlightened and unencumbered sons and daughters of Abraham, isn’t there something beautiful about all of us coming together? Being half Catholic, half Arab anyway, and never really knowing what to do about it, wouldn’t being with a Jew be like splitting the difference? Wouldn’t he wanna try? Splitting me?
Read chronically depressed alcoholic
*I have since learned through my mother that back in French controlled Morocco where my dad was born and lived until he was twenty, his first love was a local Jewish girl. Were his words of wisdom the result of a broken heart?