The sign of God
The Ayatollah Khomeini* led the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Shortly afterward, a new and unfamiliar bug began to plague the houses of residents of the eastern Mediterranean shores. It was a small, brown, disgusting bug, apparently attracted to light like moths, and it would fly in through open windows and land on any object it encountered, inanimate or otherwise. People were shocked to find it on their plates or in their hair. The bug was quite harmless, but had a most powerful weapon - once squashed, it stank like hell. Soon enough people nicknamed it “Khomeini.” Apart from the obvious primitive fear of the threatening unknown and the symbolic sudden appearance of both at approximately the same time, there was a linguistic reason - “khum” means “brown” in Hebrew. So in fact it was called “Brownie,” though it actually looked more like a chocolate chip and surely ended up in many a bakery product.
There was another remarkable linguistic connection: the bug’s scientific name is “Maladera matrida." “Matrida” is Hebrew for “annoying” or “irritating.” With time, the big wave of Khomeini attacks faded, but they are still to be found here and there. I don’t have a punch line for this piece. But the bug in question can be seen here.
* Aya, coll. Ay, pl. -at: sign, token, mark; miracle; wonder, marvel, prodigy; etc. - [Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary]
The unknown insects that look like giant mosquitoes
There’s a rather frightening insect that visits us in the spring and summer. It looks like a giant mosquito but apparently has no sting - it just sits quietly on the wall, close to the ceiling, being generally repulsive and driving the cats mad.
Do you remember that film about a zoologist spending the winter in the Canadian tundra, researching wolves? He concluded that, contrary to common knowledge and scientific assumptions, wolves - large, impressive predators, with well-documented sophisticated group organization enabling collective hunting of large prey such as elk and moose - subsist mainly on mice. That's all they eat for months on end. There are plenty of mice around, and no one could come up with evidence of the wolves' hunting moose or deer or whatever. (The scientist proved his theory by eating mice - only mice - for a considerable period of time.)
I believe that cats, widely admired for their predatory abilities (or blamed for causing the extinction of rare birds), when subjected to the same sort of stringent research, will be humiliated and exposed for what they really are - insectivores.
What happens in our house is partial proof. Shifra and Shifra Jr. stared longingly at the huge pseudo-musquitoes clinging to the wall at a safe height. Eventually Ayelet decided to come to their help - they looked so miserable, and the insects so irritating. She took her long bamboo stick and managed to cause the insects to fly lower, into the talons of the impatiently waiting cats, who leapt gracefully to grab hold of them, and, naturally, to swallow them whole.
Soon enough a Pavlovian effect was created: insects or no insects, all Ayelet had to do was hold her bamboo stick, and the cats would immediately assume a stealthy, alert posture, getting ready to strike, even jumping as high as they could to grab non-existent bugs. Now they didn’t look impressive, just ridiculous.
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Nobel prize laureate Gunter Grass is of course contemporary literature, i.e. post 1950, so I will not even try to recommend his writing to Nell; however its worth mentioning, in the context of AR, that many of his book titles have animals in them. Not his most celebrated novel, the Tin Drum, but this was soon followed by Dog Years, Cat and Mouse, der but, the call of the toad, the Rat, and, significantly, “from the Diary of a Snail” (Aus dem Tagenbuch einer Schnecke), a political novel dealing with, as you can guess, slugs. Well, not really – its about Germans dealing with their past, about the 1969 Elections campaign in Germany (he is a social democrat – they are for slow, measured progress, not revolution nor stagnation or reaction, hence the slug as a fitting symbol – though I believe it was never adopted officially.) As far as I remember the author comes to visit Israel (OK, I looked now – he even visits Haifa), and through the novel tracks down the life and times of Herman Ott(?), biology teacher from Danzig, obsessed with slugs. (There are several species, in case you didn’t know.) The book, as can be imagined, is an infinite source of historical and biological information about German slugs. Example: after WWI, as demand for hay declined, the Hundretmark (sp?) area has become one large vegetable garden, with lettuce everywhere. Slugs flourished, and school children were sent to fight them – a jar of 2 liters containing slugs was rewarded with 10 goldpfenig. Boiling water was then poured over them. Grass thinks this was one possible reason Herman Ott chose to side with the slugs, as well other weak elements in society. He also had some problems with Hegel.In Migdal Haemek we were exposed to nightly attacks of naked, shell-less slugs, big and dark, leaving traces all over the porch floor and sometimes crawling under the kitchen door, proceeding slowly but confidently towards the cats’ food saucer. The cats seemed as helpless as us – that was no prey: too slow to chase and play with, too gum-like to chew. Or so I believe: I never tried, but I did ponder the possibility of eating them. I just wrote about a man who ate them in a story.
The consensus in the Czech republic is that Bohumil Hrabal is their best living author. At least that was the consensus before he died in 1997. Czech authors (I don’t include Kafka, nor Kundera, nor president Havel) are little known outside the borders of Israel (and the Czech republic). Hrabal is not likely to gain worldwide fame, considering his totally unpronounceable name.
Maybe they think he is so great because he is very different from other Czech authors, which I know and like through their Hebrew translations. Czech authors, it seems, share some identifying qualities of ironic humor and understatement, whereas Hrabal’s texts are frantic, fervent, colorful, extreme. His books were banned by the communists, of course, but he wasn’t an activist and never went into exile.
When he died, Hrabal left all his money and royalties to his cats - he had 14 of them in a summerhouse outside Prague, and he went there every day by bus to feed them. When his translator to Hebrew, Ruth Bondi, came to his favorite pub to tell him one of his books had been translated, he reacted in his famous misanthropic manner (“I couldn’t care less” he said - “I throw all my translations into the fire”), but in the end she gained his confidence, and he gave her some of his cats' food to eat - roast chicken. He himself ate only 10-Krona goulash soup. (I picked all these details from an article in the November 13 'Haaretz.')
The reason I got slightly suspicious of Hrabal is “Haircut” - a story about a young woman in a little town, set in the early 20th century. Modernity is beginning to affect people’s lives - cars and radios appear, shortening distances - and the woman (her character is based on Hrabal’s mom) - a free-spirited, brazen, wild and beautiful young creature - sets out on a “shortening” spree: she cuts her dresses, shortens the furniture’s legs, and eventually cuts her long, marvelous hair, which was the town’s pride and joy. But before we get there Hrabal describes in great detail the slaughtering of pigs in which she takes part. It is described as an exciting, sensual event: she lures the two cute piglets, which she pampered and played with for many months, and holds them when the butcher strikes their heads with an axe. She relishes the sight and smell of fresh, hot, steaming blood. Then she sleeps in a room with the dead pigs, caressing their dismembered limbs, and early in the morning fries herself a nice schnitzel.
Now, I’m no book critic [This is a lie - ed.], but readers are supposed to really like her, to sympathize with this charming, energetic young woman, an early champion of women’s rights. What was Hrabal trying to do? Confuse us? Or is that what he feels about pig slaughtering - that it is an exciting and wonderfully uplifting procedure?
I already wrote about this elsewhere, and somebody tried to put me right - to explain I confuse the aesthetics of writing with the author’s moral stand or something - but it didn’t help. Did I mention she also cuts her puppy’s tail? It drives him mad so they have to kill him. She is sorry about it.
In the final analysis, Hrabal is not my favorite Czech author. He lacks the calmed-down, ironic tone of many of his colleagues. Try Pavel Kohut, the young Veiveg (this is the wrong spelling), the now-classic Hasek, or Capek -- they are so cool.
Hrabal died falling from a 5th floor hospital room. He was trying to feed some doves at the time.
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The snake was cradled in a corner where the railing meets the concrete. The camera flash made it raise its head and hiss, and the head was triangle-shaped, so I guessed it was a viper. The cats walked around pretending they can't see it. (Zevel, our beloved cat from Migdal Haemek, once killed a midget snake - 15 centimeters long, dirt-colored - it looked like a shoelace.)
This one looked pretty frightening, actually - I was worried it will escape to some hidden hole and we'll spend the rest of our days in fear every time we go down in the dark.
Eventually the catchers came, put it in a sack, said it was a viper - the kind no one keeps at home, so it's pure nature - and charged 450 sheqels. They said it was looking for a warm place to hibernate. It was hugging a dead rat.
Very early on a Saturday morning I went down with Hila to the playground, in order to let other people sleep. Saturday mornings are very quiet, but while standing near the carob tree we heard rhythmic, dull thumps, like faint machine gun fire far away. I've already seen a woodpecker once, on the very same tree. As we approached, Hila shrieked happily, and the bird flew. I was disappointed and told Hila to be quiet - I put my finger on my mouth and said "Shhhhhh" (Hebrew for "Shhhhhh"). But a minute later the noise resumed on the poplar nearby. Again I warned Hila to be quiet and moved quietly forward. This time she imitated me, putting her finger to her mouth and going "shhhhh" with a secretive yet mischievous statement. The poplar's leafage is not very thick and we saw the beautiful woodpecker clearly, in the classic posture, knocking away. Hila, it turns out, was far more impressed by my excitement and weird behavior, and kept hushing everyone for no good reason until noontime.
In the early days of Zionism, jackals were a symbol of the desolated, feral conditions the Jewish pioneers from Russia discovered upon coming to the wild East: they represented external threat. Amos Oz, aspiring to be a National Author, wrote about it. I only heard jackals when I was in the university, staying nights in the dorms overlooking the uninhabited slopes of the Carmel, and so they have become partly associated with early erotic experiences.
As the country flourished and the deserts bloomed, jackal territories gradually diminished, and their population reduced - or so it seemed. At some point it seems they made a serious comeback. From our window on summer nights - winters too, if it's warm - their horrifying cries rise from the Wadi. We always try to imagine what goes on down there, with all that racket: are they courting? Fighting over food, territory, holy places, self determination? It can sometimes keep one awake, and that's annoying, but it's certainly not threatening. I only saw a jackal once, caught in my car's lamplight. It looked miserable, low spirited, like Kipling's Tabaki.
* p.s. -Nell says this reminded her of Kafka's Jackals and Arabs
As I walked down our street looking at the sea I saw something huge in the water, lit by the strage orange late afternoon sunrays. There were some ships in the distance, dwarfed by this giant construction. I wondered for a minute why would anyone bother towing an oil rig to a place where even the most stubborn and patriotic experts never expected to strike oil. I went home and forgot about it, and would consider it to be an hallucination derived from lack of sleep. But on the next day I met Adam the fishermen on the Carmelit, and he told me he did some underwater job on the rig. He said he was very surprised to find at the bottom, in one of the giant hollow pillars (are there giant hollow pillars in an oil rig?) a whole ecological niche imported from the pacific ocean: clams unknown to our region, scallops, seaweed, and even a strange looking fish which he caught and brought home for dinner. This could have been the fish that would annihilate entire populations of local fish, but luckily, Adam was there. Then, as always, we talked literature until the last station.