Twice, on a business trip to Israel many years ago, I met women who seemed to personify certain characteristics of that country. Both were in uniform, both were strikingly beautiful, but each one could not have been more different from the other.
To reverse the chronology, one appeared in front of me as my colleague and I were on our way out of the country, at the airport. As we all waited in the queues for check-in, security personnel moved amongst us, questioning people at random, searching hand baggage and scrutinising passports. One stopped in front of me.
Tall, blonde and slim, she looked more like a Scandinavian supermodel than a border guard in the Middle East. She could not have been older than 26 years or so and was stunningly attractive.
Her wonderful mouth opened and she spoke.
I handed it over willingly enough and she opened it. Immediately there was, it seemed, a problem. It was filled with visas and entry permits from all over the Middle East.
“But these are all Arab marks!”, she gasped.
Now this was true, but I had been assured by the British Council, for whom I was then working, that it would not be a problem. Clearly now, however, it was. Time to explain.
“I have had to visit several Arab countries for my work. I’m a sort of diplomat.”
“But look, ” she said, “it shows here that you were three years in Sudan! Three years!”
“So you met many Sudanese people?”
“Er… Yes. Well, sort of…”
“So you knew many Sudanese!”
“Well…”, I began. Then inspiration came. Where you can, exploit the stereotype.
“Oh,” I said, “I should have explained: in Sudan I was in the British Embassy so that was….most of the time… different.” I had a brief flashback to that red-brick oasis in Khartoum: the swimming pool, the commissariat, the air-conditioning… Her face began to clear.
“So, you didn’t know any Sudanese people? You didn’t meet any?”
“Yes, yes!” I replied eagerly but with a note of British condescension,”That’s true! I was a diplomat so of course I didn’t know anyone in Sudan.” The very idea!
“Oh,” said she, “I understand!” Her voice shook with relief. ” That’s good! OK, you can go!”
So I left Israel for good. On my way home, I reflected on an earlier encounter that had been much more impressive. During our visit my colleague and I had been invited to the Sabbath meal at the home of a university professor. Large, hirsute, almost bear-like, he welcomed us to the cosy mitteleuropaisch apartment n Jerusalem where he lived with his family in a cloud of books and papers. His son and daughter-in-law would be joining us, he enthused. We would like them.
We sat around and chatted. Soon enough, the son and his wife appeared. He was nondescript; I remember nothing at all about him. But she!
She was in her mid-twenties: a neat, petite brunette with her hair tied back, olive skin, cheekbones, mouth, dark eyes; exotic. She wore the crisp, light brown uniform of the Israeli navy, with lieutenant’s bars and a couple of medals. She was entrancingly beautiful.
As we sat down to dinner, her story came out. She had been born in the Yemen and had been brought out of that country, which I knew fairly well, as a child refugee on one of those flights chartered in the 1970s to bring Jews from places like Ethiopia and Eritrea to the Promised Land. In her new country she had taken every opportunity going, every escalator and fast track available and transformed herself into a formidable demonstration of ‘getting on’.
And I remember thinking, what kind of country does it have to be for this to happen? No doubt her looks helped, but only so far, surely. Years later, I read General Colin Powell’s remark that, had his parents emigrated to Britain instead of the US, and he had joined the British Army instead of the American one, he would have risen to the raank 0f regimental sergeant-major rather than Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
There are societies who encourage that, others that permit it; still others, where it would be impossible and for many the fate of never being recognised for one’s talents at all: “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen/ And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”
My interior screen still plays the sequence: the little girl, dressed in those enveloping black, filigree-decorated robes, eyes wide, being led up the steps to the plane for the first flight of her life. Staring out of the window as they lifted off from dusty Sana’a and its green-topped minarets; then landing in a cacophony of noise and greeting (Aliyah!) and hugs and confusion and tears and then out into the bus that took her up into the hills and into her future. I, not a Jew but whose great-grandfather came ashore in the imperial city in the 1850s to make his future, salute her. Behatslacha!