There is something more than a little surreal about going to pick up a gas mask. And I have been putting off the task for some time now, in spite of regular reminders by post and having been sufficiently aware of the possibility of a heavy, sustained attack on Israel – and Tel Aviv especially – to have blogged about it every few months (most recently in Getting ready to rock ‘n’ roll with Iran and Reflections on Armageddon).
Gas mask graffiti: man reading sports pages (Rabin Square, Tel Aviv)
Fortunately, it is not in the Israeli “live for today” constitution to lose sleep over such an eventuality, and many of the natives won’t even bother to collect their masks – or “individual protection kits”, to give them their official, Orwellian name – as they consider them a waste of time (and they probably are).
My friend Itzik, on the other hand, has been preoccupied with the spectre of war for months now. Meeting another friend, an IDF intelligence officer, for the first time recently, Itzik spent the entire evening trying to extract hints as to when he should book his outbound flight. And, ever since discovering my source, Itzik has regularly been enquiring as to whether I have “heard anything”. I, of course, now delight in terrorising him: “Where are you?” I’ll fire as he answers his phone. “How soon can you be at Ben Gurion (Airport)?”
The recent automated telephone reminders – supplementing the postal ones – to pick up gas masks, however, have started to make me think that something really may be up . . . and imminent.
Collecting my prehistoric CRT (cathode ray tube) television from repair – show me the Polish Jew who can easily dispose of something that once cost him several hundred pounds! – last week, the workshop owner mentioned that he was born in Iran. Instantly forgetting the dilemma of whether I should leave him the great hulk of mid-nineties Japanese engineering and keep the three hundred shekels in my pocket (an option he offered), I asked Assi whether he thought that Ahmadinejad was “just a big talker”.
I was looking, I think, for reassurance, from a man with some understanding of the Iranian psyche. I immediately wished, however, that I had stayed shtum.
“Oh no,” replied Assi confidently (in a now unmistakable Persian accent), “it’s gonna go crazy here . . . and before the chagim (Jewish high holidays, beginning in the middle of next week). If you have got somewhere to go . . . go!”
The nonchalance with which the TV repair man turned doomsayer delivered his prediction made it no less shocking.
I attempted to calm myself with the recollection that this was the very same man who had informed me, just a few days earlier, that old tellies display a far better quality of picture than state-of-the-art TVs.
This time, however, Assi had nothing to sell.
“So why don’t you go?” I retorted.
“Where am I going to go with my kids? Anyway, I haven’t got the money.”
I immediately handed over the three hundred shekels and somehow squeezed the giant Sony Trinitron back onto my back seat. And, by the time I had schlepped it back up to my second floor flat, I was determined to collect that gas mask once and for all.
The postal reminder listed the nearest pickup point to be my local ACE DIY/home improvement store – a kind of B&Q with attitude – which somehow added to the surrealism of the exercise:
“A pack of double ‘A’ Energizer batteries, some cheap tumblers, a plastic garden chair . . . oh yes, and a gas mask, please, in case of biological or chemical attack.”
Gas mask distribution point, Ramat Gan
Two young frechot sitting at the rear of the store were checking teudot zehut (ID cards) and handing out the cardboard boxes. And there was a sample mask, in its constituent parts, on the desk in front of them.
Seeing as I had never worn one – I was at university, in England, when they were last used, during the first Gulf War – and that the girls had informed me that opening the box is prohibited (before you absolutely have to, I interpolated), I enquired as to whether they would be kind enough to show me how. The twin gazes of incredulity, however, that greeted my request – reasonable, I thought, in the circumstances – told me that they had no intention of allowing their discussion of what is new in frecha fashion, or of which Avi, Benny or Yossi had abused them the previous evening, to be interrupted. I scuttled off home.
Oddly enough, after the danger to those near and dear, the thought that most haunts me about Israel coming under heavy and prolonged attack is not of the ignoble mass party that will undoubtedly break out right across the knuckle-dragging Islamic world, but rather of the sickening glee that it will also bring to the Kaufmans, Galloways and Finkelsteins, not to mention the poisonous little Gerts, of the rest of it.
Back in Sheinkin, I treated myself to a comfort sabich and chips. I had needed something rather more substantial than the information, provided by Assi, that “many Iranians secretly listen to Israel Radio English news”.
David, a Welshman, still here some twenty years after meeting an Israeli girl in a Camden Town pub, joined me.
“Do you think about it much?” I asked him, my head still in gas masks.
“There’s not much to think about,” replied David. “You either stay or you go. And I’m not going.”
And, after investing fifty-odd quid in that old telly, nor am I . . . but will – like a good Polish boy – be seeing out Assi’s three-month guarantee, at the very least!