One Thursday, a few weeks after we arrived, Philippe went to work while I stayed home to oversee the workers. It was a quiet day with only two regulars: Muhammed and Hyaman. Both Arabs, they had been working on the house long before we arrived and almost every day since. In fact, Muhammed had been sleeping on a mattress in one room or another all summer to avoid driving back and forth to his village as well as to protect our appliances and their tools from theft. I don’t know if he felt relieved or usurped when we finally moved in. Hyaman, he told me himself, traveled by bus every day from Jaffo, a mixed Arab-Jewish city south of Tel Aviv, and it took him two hours with one transfer and a lot of traffic.
On this particular morning, the two men were smoothing out the new wall that runs alongside the stairs to the yoga studio and repainting under the overhang above the front door. At 1pm, I asked them to come inside to do finishing touches, explaining that I wanted to finish because I had a housecleaner coming to clean at 3.At 3:45, our next door neighbor, Galina, arrived, carrying a bucket, different bottles of cleaning supplies and a sponja, the long, skinny dual-purpose squeegee used to mop when covered with a smartut (rag) as well as to sweep the dirty water into a drain. A heavyset woman with thinning silver-grey hair and a few gold teeth in her mouth, Galina hails from Moldavia, where her children and grandchildren still live. A Christian, she moved here for work; for the past five years she has been living with our neighbors. This year, Galina has the house mostly to herself as her employers are on a 9-month sabbatical in the U.S. and have left behind their two adult children and three pugs under her watch.
Galina lugged her cleaning supplies into my front entry and plopped them down on the floor. Muhammed and Hyaman were sort of working—retouching, removing splotches of paint from various surfaces, answering their cell phones, which ring non-stop, chatting to one another in Arabic, holding paint brushes and walking up and down our stairs to look busy. I introduced Galina to them and them to Galina.
“Shalom, Galina, ma nishma, giveret?” Muhammed said lightheartedly. A dark skinned man with hair to his shoulders and biceps bulging underneath his t-shirts, he is charismatic and charming. “Hello, Galina. How are you, ma’am?”
“Tov, toda,” she replied in her heavily accented, rudimentary Hebrew. “Good, thanks.”
I offered the three of them water and showed them where to refill when they needed more. Then Galina and I climbed the two floors to the girls’ rooms, where she attacked the dust and dirt with vigor. Leaving her in peace, I returned to the kitchen to tend to the men.
A homemade coffee cake was sitting on our counter, and I picked at the crumbs. I asked the guys if they wanted a piece. Muhammed, I had already learned, didn’t eat sweets but Hyaman was a man after my own heart. As I was handing him the plate, I told him a new friend had made it last night and brought it to us, warm from the oven, and that it was laced with Kahlua, a coffee liquor. He questioned what Kahlua was so I tried explaining it in different words. Finally he got it.
“Yesh alcohol befnim?” Yes, I told him, there was a little alcohol. Immediately, he declined my offer, explaining that he doesn’t drink. I tried to explain that it was made with this alcohol but it was nothing like drinking it. Muhammed was watching me, my reaction, and laughing.
“Muslim,” he said, pointing at the painter. They don’t drink alcohol. Muhammed was Muslim, too, but non-practicing. I finally understood, smiled and put the piece of cake back.
“So you can smoke no problem but no drinking?” I teased them both. They nodded their heads yes and we laughed at the strangeness of it all.
Still laughing, we parted company. I checked on Galina upstairs to make sure she and I had communicated well enough and she knew what she was doing and then I lost myself in laundry. The men continued to fix and finish and make messes and kind of clean up.
Later, Galina and I descended the stairs at the same time. She started to clean in the kitchen while I went to living/dining room to ask Hyaman a question.
“Ata yichol lavo?” I asked politely, mustering up all my feminine charm possible to lure him back upstairs to remove paint splotches from the rim of the shower. Hyaman was on the patio, on hands and knees, his upper body rising and falling in a bow. I thought he was cleaning until he didn’t answer or acknowledge me. Seconds passed, possibly a minute, before I understood; it was prayer time and Hyaman was an observant Muslim and Muslims get on their hands and knees and bow until they touch the ground to praise Allah.“Slicha,” I whispered, apologizing and then backed away, turned around and returned indoors. Even though this young man had spent the past few weeks painting my house, I had never seen him stop to pray. Mortified, I felt as if I had invaded his sacred space.
Walking away from Hyaman toward the kitchen, I scanned the scene both inside and out. I thought about the people here. When you hear or read about Israel in the news, it is most often about the conflicts this small country has with the people in and around it, but here on the ground, we’re mostly trying to get along. My new house in the Mideast was filled with different languages and cultures and religions. It was full of characters–Galina, Muhammed, Hyaman and me–and we were working hard.