“Boker tov ve Shabbat shalom,” the man at the door said when he greeted us Saturday morning at the entrance. The six of us girls stood around him listening intently to his instructions. We were to remove our glasses, coats and purses and put them in the lockers. “Aval teshmaru ksat kesef im atem rotsim liknot masho be café,” he said, suggesting we keep some small change if we wanted to order at the café at the end. Simone jumped up and down, begging to get a chocolate bar, remembering from our first visit five years prior. I pocketed 8 shekels and put the rest away.
Back at the entrance, we waited until another two people joined us. At precisely noon, the man called us over to a door near a curtain. “Beseder, az atem ticansoo le hoschech im ha madrich shelachem, Shabi. Shabi ata po?” He told us we were going to enter total darkness with a guide named Shabi who was awaiting us. Then he peeked inside the curtain and asked if he was there. Shabi welcomed us from somewhere deep inside. The man explained that our guide was blind and that for the next 60-75 minutes we were going to enter into blackness, as if we were blind too, and experience seven different settings. His Hebrew was fast, but I understood the gist.
My friend Adi was first in line. An Israeli-American, she has been living in California with her husband and four girls for the past 22 years. Last August, they arrived in Israel to spend one year on the kibbutz where she grew up, to immerse the girls in Israeli culture. When she had called to make the reservation at the museum, the only possibility was Saturday at noon in Hebrew. Her younger two, Anna and Roni, ages 13 and 11 respectively, stood behind her followed by Simone and Daniella. I was last but comfortable knowing my daughter would be one step ahead of me.
We slowly stepped forward into the black. I closed my eyes, knowing that the effort to keep them open was exhausting. I reached out for Daniella’s shoulders. “You’re not supposed to touch anyone,” she said nicely. “Didn’t you hear him say that?” I hadn’t. I removed my hands and reached out for the walls on either side of me instead.
After a few minutes of groping in the dark, first alongside the walls and then in the middle of the room, we heard sounds of nature. Birds chirped and water whooshed in the background. Everyone stopped and we bumped into each other, giggling and asking who was who. Shabi asked if we could identify where we were. He asked us to use all of our senses. I said a zoo; others said a park. There was bamboo along the walls, a tree trunk with branches in the middle of the room, a bench, water spurting from an opening on the wall. He told us to find certain landmarks and begged us to explore with our feet and hands, ears and nose.
From the park, we continued walking, over a small bridge, down a shallow step and onto benches, where our guide told us to sit. Did we know where we were, he asked, as we began to sway. “ A boat!” we said. Wind rustled and mist fell on us. We shivered with excitement and anticipation of the unknown.
After a few minutes of sailing in place, Shabi told us we were going to exit and proceed toward the street. We would hear noises—cars and motorcycles and busses—whizzing by and he cautioned us to stay alongside the road to the left at first. These were the noises of everyday life outside, and we needed to pay attention, like the blind do. With my hands gliding over the wall, I felt the lid of a garbage can, bike handles, the seat and handlebars of a motorcycle, a receiver in a telephone booth. At times I walked alone and at others I careened into whomever was in front or behind me.
As soon as I had to let go of the wall and walk in the darkness, I felt vulnerable. I shuffled with my feet barely leaving the ground, putting my arms out to the sides to see if there was anyone or anything in my way. Five years ago, during our sabbatical year in Israel, when we visited the same exhibit, Dialogue in the Dark, I remembered closing my eyes and just walking with trust, but I didn’t remember feeling so helpless. It might be age or it might be my fall last August in France that made this visit different, more powerful. Whatever it was, I had an inkling for what being blind might feel like, and it wasn’t comfortable.
From the street, we continued on to the a simulated shuk. Shabi encouraged us to feel the fruits and vegetables in the crates alongside the walls, to pick them up and smell each one to identify them. On my left were potatoes and onions and apples and to the right were oranges and carrots and cabbage. Some of the produce was unidentifiable despite being able to touch and smell it. As we were leaving the marketplace, Adi asked us if we heard the shopkeepers conversations. I realized I was concentrating so hard on moving from one side of the room to the other, trying to determine what I was holding, that I didn’t even hear the taped shuk-like sounds of people bantering in the background.
We walked towards an elevator with wall-to-wall carpeting, Shabi told us, where we were to stop and wait as the group ahead of us exited. Unable to occasionally glance at my watch, I had no idea how much time we spent in any one place. Losing the sense of time was nothing, however, compared to losing the sense of sight.
I could hear the group, a bunch of loud Israelis laughing and joking, and realized we must sound the same to whomever was behind us. We stood in total darkness surrounded by each other in close quarters in this pretend lift. Imagine not being able to see the people with whom you share such small space—ever?
Our next stop was a walled room with a carpeted floor. Our guide instructed us to walk until we reached a wall and stand with our backs against it; when everyone was in place, he told us to sit and get comfortable. I sat cross-legged on the floor and waited. Music began to vibrate underneath us and all around: first classical instruments, interrupted by the typical three beeps before the hourly news, then a pop song, followed by a Bezek phone company operator telling us to hold the line, and more music. Each time a voice or instrument boomed over the speaker, I felt the vibration ripple through my body.
Minutes later, or so it seemed, we were told to stand and walk our way to the door, where Shabi explained, he would direct us to our last stop, a bar. There we were to feel for the counter, listen to the bartender, who was selling Pesek Zman chocolate bars, Bamba peanut butter snacks, soda, water, even beer. Once we ordered, we were to find a seat at a U-shaped table and bench together. Shabi would help guide us. To pay, he said, coins were ideal or a 20-shekel bill. If we didn’t know the bill’s denomination, then the bartender had to step outside in the light to check in order to give us the right change (he must have been seeing, unlike the guides who were all blind). I walked slowly into the room, first feeling my way along the wall to my left until I reached people talking. Suddenly, I felt hair, someone’s head. “Slicha,” I said excusing myself.
“Im mi at?” the man with the deep voice asked me whom I was with. I momentarily forgot Shabi’s name and said I didn’t know. “Well you’re not with us,” he laughed as did others around him.
I had no choice but to move away from the wall and into the room. Walking tentatively, I stepped forward until I felt hands reaching for me. Shabi pulled me toward him, urging me to put my hands down onto the counter ahead of me. I was glad he couldn’t see my face, which was red with shame. Daniella was on my right, and I asked her to find Simone so we could order. I removed the coins from my pocket, felt around for her palm and handed them to her. She ordered a Pesek Zman chocolate wafer bar for 6 shekels and somehow slipped him the money: six 1-shekel pieces and one 2-shekel coin, which he kindly returned. Once everyone had what they wanted, Shabi led us to our table.
The noise in the room was difficult to block out. Unable to use my eyes to read people’s gestures and facial expressions, I could only rely on my ears. In English, I understand even if I can’t see, whereas here, between the darkness and the Hebrew, I was at a loss. Shabi asked us if we had any questions about the museum, being blind, whatever we wanted. I tried to concentrate on the words, but the intensity of the experience made me so tired that I ended up tuning out every few sentences. Adi asked if he could see any shapes or light, and he explained that at birth he could but that at a young age something happened and in one instant he was completely blind. Daniella asked how he got to work to which he replied public transportation; thanks to the iphone, he used an App that told him when certain busses were coming and that technology in general helped the blind be more independently mobile. At some bus stops, a machine announces each busses arrival, and at many crosswalks, it beeps when you can and cannot cross. He mentioned how some people worked at the blackout restaurant in Jaffa, which we went to last year and loved. The rest of his story, I couldn’t digest.
Someone must have come over and tapped Shabi to alert him that our time was up because he said, “Ken, ken, anachnu zazim,” or yes, we were moving. He asked us to remove our garbage to keep the place clean, and I wondered if the lights ever go on and the museum is well maintained or if maybe the darkness just shields us from seeing. Finally, he warned us that we were going to exit into a hallway and light would slowly stream in but not to race toward it so as not to shock our system. It could make us dizzy or lightheaded, he said.
For the last time, I felt this stranger’s firm touch as he guided me left and then right, out, to where I could see—but he could not. When I looked at him, I was surprised. He was older than I pictured with graying hair and a belly that hung over the edge of his pants. His eyes were open but vacant.
As we accustomed our eyes in the final room, we could look and feel books, a board game, a typewriter-like machine and a globe each with Braille. There was a guestbook which we could sign. The last one out the door, Simone wrote in Hebrew that Shabi was a great guide. In English, she wrote: “It was an amazing experience.”
An unforgettable hour, indeed.