I started to write a post the same evening of the first missile fell on Tel Aviv, on Thursday, November 17th. The first missile since 1991. Three days and three red alert sirens after, I can say that it is starting to settle in. That we may have to live like this, for the time being. Mostly staying indoor, and when out, mentally mapping what could be the nearest shelter available. Behaving normal, but slightly more alert, slightly more reactive, especially to noises like the roar of a plane, motorbike, vacuum cleaner, ambulance, police; pretty much anything beginning with a dull, crescendo, woohoo tone.
I do not want to sound too drastic. This is not Baghdad or Sarajevo. Although Tel Aviv is now officially under threat, chances of being injured by a missile are really slim. Moreover, there is a time lapse of 90 seconds between the moment Red Alert goes off, and the eventual impact. That leaves some time to reach a shelter, much more comfortably when compared to 10 or 15 seconds in places located closer to the Gaza Strip, where the assiduity of bombing make the possibility of a normal life much harder (I don’t even want to start talking about Gaza).
Yet, something has changed since Thursday. Psychologically, mentally. Call it a realization. I can now fully endorse those who say “you cannot really understand, unless you experience it“. So much that friends who live 10 km West of Tel Aviv and did not go through a red alert yet, seemed certainly worried about the situation, but not traumatized in any way.
I have lived in Israel for over 4 years, therefore I was present during the last big operation in Gaza, in January 2008. It saddened me, it angered me, but somehow it was still something I read about in the papers. Even if my perspective was geographically closer to, let’s say, Europe, I did not fully understand how incredibly close I was. This has changed now, and it is not a bad thing in itself.
When the red alert sirens sounded loud and clear in Tel Aviv, for the first time in twenty years, it was Thursday, after 6pm. I was in the middle of a class with students, teaching passato prossimo. Although I had been following the news and felt kind of pessimistic about the nearest developments of the conflict, it really caught me by surprise. More than surprise. It was like a tear in the picture, the swift cut of a surgeon. Everything felt at the same time very alive, suspended, sharp, frozen. I looked at students in disbelief. I literally asked them: “Do we really have to go down?“. When what I actually meant was: is this really happening? And its corollary: please someone tell me it is not.
Although in their 20s or 30s, meaning not much in the habit dealing with red alerts themselves, students were way more prompt to follow procedures. We started evacuating through the staircase, from the third floor of a taller building in North Tel Aviv. Some found themselves two floors underground, all the way to the safe room (Miklat), other stopped before. There we stood, everyone with his own way to cope with the situation. Some visibly stressed out, other minimizing, trying to loosen up the tension. The cellular network collapsed, so it took a while to be able to contact family and friends, to understand what was going on.
Shaking like a leaf, legs turned into jelly, I leaned against a wall, wondering what to do, and whether this was the beginning of something much bigger. Untrained, I did not even know if there would be a siren to call off the alert. Someone said you have to count ten minutes. Luckily, through fear, the nature of the situation helped barriers lower between people. The lawyer no one would even notice in the routine of a shared elevator ride, read aloud a message he just got from someone in the South of Israel (“It is about time you get to know what it feels“). A lady started diving into memories of the Gulf War, with its dozens of alerts and much heavier and powerful missiles coming from Iraq. A colleague worried about her two daughters, who later showed up at the school, because in the frenzy of reaching the bunker they had been locked out of their apartment.
Later we would learn that the missiles fell in the sea somewhere near Jaffa, where they exploded with a loud noise. At least, we did not hear the actual explosion.
It took me a considerably long time to regain a hold of myself. In the aftermath, I started to chain thoughts about the possibility of a widespread Middle East conflict, with foreign powers taking sides, a World War, all corroborated by the ominous predictions of the Maya, that the world would come to an end in December 2012. Other things suddenly became irrelevant. What to cook for the evening. How to finish the class. I just wanted to sit in front of a TV to better understand what was to be expected (although three days and countless hours of broadcasts and interviews later, I can say that actually, in the eve of a redrawn Middle East map, no one has a clue).
How quickly you start building certain memories. The second siren went off on Friday, towards 2pm. I had stayed home the whole morning, baking nothing but dark thoughts, until a friend came over and convinced me to join a group of other friends, who were having lunch at a nearby café. I was not really in the mood, but the night had been calm. I decided to go along, at least as a statement that I was not going to shut myself in the house forever.
The café was incredibly packed with people, loud music in the background, parked dogs and strollers. A normal sight for Tel Aviv, but it came across as slightly unfitting, given the situation. I could not resolve to take a seat. Something felt really uneasy with the very notion of behaving “normal”. Are you hungry? Not really. You wanna sit down? Not really. You want to continue walking? I don’t know. “Look, everything is back to normal. We are in Tel Aviv“, said someone with a certain pinch of pride. And that is when we heard the red alert siren again.
Same moment of disbelief, a glimpse of fear in people’s eyes, the music stops. Waiters signed the way to the inner corridor, like trained hostess giving a demonstration of emergency procedures. We squeezed in the tiny place, women with little babies in their arms, young people in smart clothes, the Beautiful People of the State of Tel Aviv. But some cracks ran across the picture, once again exposing some deeper, not so fancy, collective vulnerability. In the corner next to me, a waitress rested her head over a dish of dips and started sobbing, shaking her heads from side to side. I think this is the saddest image I will remember.
As to me, I held hands really thigh with my dear friend, which also happens to be pregnant. I saw the fear in her eyes, two Italian women stranded in a foreign land, with foreign rules, and now even a more foreign terrorist power who is shooting missiles in our direction.
This time we heard the boom, together with a slight tremor in the ground. Like that book.. Extremely loud and incredibly close. It terrified me, just when I was about to say to myself: ok, this time I feel more prepared, I had learned the sequence – siren> hiding> ten minutes> back to normal.
But the noise of the explosion added another layer to the realization.
The spell who held us like ghosts broke off in few minutes. In less time it took me to have my fingers operational to make a phone call, music was back in the air, people were back to their shnitzels, chatting resumed, waiters gliding through the tables. I wanted to go home as soon as possible, but even the short walk home seemed like an impossible mission. Science fiction meeting reality equals = today.
Then came Saturday, shabbat. We had invitations over a friend’s house for lunch. I really hoped they would call it off, feeling still clouded and unable to function socially. But then, being at home glued to computer and TV in simultaneous cacophony, hadn’t proved much relaxing either. So we took the car and drove the short distance. The apartment was on the second floor, and yes, they had a bunker underground, a piece of logistic information that would have sounded unnecessary four days ago, laughable in Europe, but from now on likely to be served in café around town, together with your order of Espresso.
There were children playing around, aged 15 months to 8 years. We avoided talking about “the situation” in front of them, although by no means could such a pressing issue be out of anyone’s mind. Around 4.30 pm, it was clear that the children had had enough of being inside. Someone suggested that we all go downstairs, to let the children run around a bit.
We briefly discussed the risk of another red alert taking us by surprise, but someone joked that even Hamas must be off to tea breaks at this hour (nervous laughter). Not ten minutes passed, literally, with children scattered in the outdoor playground, that the sound of the siren rose again, wrapping us in fear from every direction. A brief moment of disbelief, like something inside which refuses to cooperate with reality, then very quickly everybody grabbed a child and ran.
We found a safe room inside a nearby building, where other residents of the building had already took a seat in a circle. Someone had brought along a bag with snacks, and some bottles of water. The youngest children thought this was a pretty awesome hide-and-seek session, so they stayed put without complaining. The older ones, who had received some explanations about the situation, looked more tensed, unusually restrained. I thought they all behave incredibly well, standing still in the claustrophobic little room. But when we came out, one of them broke down in tears. “Will this be considered a war?” …. “Why has Israel had so many wars?“…. such heavy questioning, in such a childish voice.
Tomorrow the working week starts again. The question on everyone’s mind will be when the next alert will sound, and where will it find us. Some locations present more challenging procedures. If you are in a car, you should park on the side, step outside and find shelter. If you don’t have anywhere to run, you must lay down, face to the ground, hands covering your head. Public shelters have been reopened in Tel Aviv. We already heard word of a company who is developing an application for cellphone, able to locate the nearest public shelter.
How quickly normality can be shaken. How quickly human beings can adjust to it.
In any case, may we all have calmer days ahead.