By Naomi Alderman
Everything in Israel is a metaphor, everything in Mexico is itself.
In November 2015, I spent two weeks in Israel – then a palate-cleansing week in raining, dark, Christmas-obsessed London – then two weeks in Mexico.
I didn’t do it for this piece, or this journal. It was just a happy accident.
Possibly, all happy accidents are metaphors.
In Tel Aviv, I tried to buy some bananas at a stall in the Carmel Market.
“Four bananas please,” I said in my still-passable-even-two-decades-after-A-Level Hebrew.
The man put five bruised-looking bananas into a bag.
“No, I just want four,” I said, “these ones,” and pointed to the fresh ones at the front.
“This is four,” he said.
“Chaver,” I said, “friend, I can see perfectly well that you’ve put five bananas into the bag. I said four.” I went to pull four bananas off the fresh bunch at the front.
“No no,” he said, “don’t split them. This is four.”
“OK,” I said, “then I’ll just go.”
So he lost out because he was so insistent on doing it his way or no way at all.
You get it, right? Imagine if we’d have been able to come to some accord. He’d have reaped the peace dividend in cash just as much as I would in bananas. But, no. His way or the highway.
Everything in Israel is a metaphor.
In Oaxaca, I asked for “tres bananas” in exceedingly poor Spanish at a stall in the 20 de Noviembre market.
The woman looked annoyed.
I made a hopeful face.
“Seis pesos”, she said.
I counted out the coins from my wallet.
She pulled three bananas off the bunch and thrust them at me.
I wondered if she was annoyed because my Spanish was so poor, or because her life was hard, or just because it was early in the morning.
Everything in Mexico is just itself.
In the pharmacy in Tel Aviv, I queued to buy some ibuprofen. As my turn came at the till, a Russian woman quite literally physically pushed in front of me and presented her purchases to the cashier.
I was so breathtaken I laughed out loud.
“I’ve been waiting for a long time,” she said.
“Well so have I,” I said.
This statement was unimpressive to her.
“Whatever makes you happy,” I said.
In Israel, you see, people physically push their way in. They take whatever they want. They don’t care if you were there first. If they have needs, those are the most important needs in the world. Everything in Israel is a metaphor.
In the airport in Mexico City, my flight to Guadalajara was on the board as “on time” until it was late by two hours. Then it was cancelled. I had to argue and wheedle with five separate Aero Mexico staff in order to get my luggage back. I discovered later that some other British travellers going to the same book festival hadn’t got their bags back at all. They had to wait days for the bags. They had to borrow clothing and live without clean underwear.
How inconvenient. How exhausting. Presumably the infrastructure in this country isn’t what one is used to. Everything in Mexico is itself.
My body is fleshy: thighs, breasts, belly, bum. Naked, I look very like the Venus of Willendorf, the 30,000-year-old figure carved by some hunter-gatherer to appreciate luscious female beauty. In Northern Europe and North America, it is considered rather unsophisticated for a man to enjoy a body like mine. The kind of urbane intellectual man whose company I like might feel it spoke poorly of his taste to be seen to enjoy my body. In Israel, and in Mexico, I get chatted up a lot more on the streets than I do in the UK.
In Israel, this means my parents were right. I should move to Israel. I should look for a Jewish husband.
In Mexico, it is simply charming.
The thing is of course: I know a lot about Israel. I know almost nothing about Mexico. To understand a metaphor, you have to know what you’re looking for.
While I was in Israel, three people were stabbed in Jerusalem by terrorists who were then, themselves, shot. I received a flurry of texts and emails from family and friends. Look after yourself out there. Stay safe. Let us know you’re alright.
While I was in Guadalajara the city was hit by what one newspaper described as “a relentless wave of killings”. The killings have been blamed on a dispute between rival cells of the Jalisco New Generation drug cartel. Five men in black opened fire in a steak restaurant, killing three people. 23 people were murdered in two days in cafes and on the streets. An Uber driver was shot in his car.
When our embassy car didn’t arrive on time, the non-fiction author Jon Ronson ordered an Uber to get a few of us back to the hotel in time to go to the gym. We were all very grateful. “How’s the trip?!” read the texts and emails from family and friends. Don’t forget to take photos. Are you having lots of guacamole and chocolate? Have you caught the sun?
People in London make a face when you tell them you’re visiting Israel. When you tell them you’re visiting Mexico they say ‘don’t forget your sombrero!’
Israel is famous. It’s a shame, in a way. The most famous man who ever lived came from Israel. People in Europe have heard of Israel. They think they need to have a view on it. They spin scant facts into a story. The story is about goodies and baddies. Those are the best stories, always.
The bananas in Israel and Mexico taste just the same.
While I was in Mexico City, I got caught up unintentionally in a street protest. I didn’t know what the protest was about. There were police lining the streets. When I say lining, I mean: they were standing three-deep at each side of the road. There were protesters walking down the centre of the road next to the anthropological museum, banging drums and shouting. I was just trying to walk back to my hotel but suddenly there was a protest everywhere, people pressing close. I held my bag tight to my chest. I reminded myself to breathe.
I told myself: it’s probably about cuts to the culture budget. I told myself: there are police here, I’m perfectly safe. I took a photograph of the protest signs to investigate at home. I noted down the word “Ayotzinapa” from the flyers.
As it turns out, this protest was about the disappearance of 43 student teachers in 2014. They had been on a bus to protest at a conference. The police intercepted them and – it seems – handed them over to the local United Warriors crime syndicate. They haven’t been seen since. Two of them have been confirmed dead after plastic bags containing human remains were found by a river.
It was at this point that I thought I should probably learn a bit more about Mexico.
I phoned up a restaurant in Israel to try to order takeout. We can’t, they said, you don’t have an Israeli phone number. But I can pay, I said, and I can give you instructions of exactly how to get here. And I’m ill. And I can give you my email address and my whatsapp number and anything else you want.
No, they said. Not if you don’t have an Israeli number.
They won’t help you if you’re different, you see. If you’re not one of them.
In Mexico, I went out for dinner with several distinguished writers, one of whom is vegan. Can you make me some frijoles without butter, she said. No, they said. How about some soup? It all has chicken stock. How about some tortillas? They’re all cooked in lard. The chef won’t allow it.
They’re under the thumb, you see. They do what they’re told.
Everything is a metaphor. Everywhere is full of human beings. And the sharp elbows of our desire. And the sharp smell of our fear.