It was one of the longest weddings I’ve ever attended: After almost six hours of near ecstasy, when I made my way home, the wedding cake had not yet been served and the wild dancing was still going strong.
Every weekend there are at least 10 such Eritrean weddings, all in Tel Aviv, and we didn’t know about them. We didn’t know that those “transparent” people – those who work as street sweepers, on the frames of buildings and in restaurant kitchens – also have a world of their own. It is a world of crazy music and great joy, even if it is mingled with the sadness of people who dance by night, but are frightened and humiliated by day.
“I’m somewhat in shock. Suddenly I see they have a real life here,” says the groom’s boss, from Cafe Neto. The boss had come with his two partners to celebrate the wedding of his cook; the other guests were all dressed up, and they had come in jeans.
No, the employer admits, he has no idea how many years his Jamal has been in Israel, where he lives or who his new wife is. He only knows that Jamal’s an “excellent worker,” that he’s a “special guy” and that he’s been given a day off in honor of his wedding – a one-day Eritrean honeymoon.
The streets that spill over into the environs of the old Tel Aviv central bus station have Zionist names: Hagdud Ha’ivri (the Jewish Brigade) and Yesod Hama’ala (one of the earliest Zionist settlements, in the northern Galilee), are bustling on this particular Saturday. At 5 P.M., on this stormy day, the hangouts of the Sudanese, the Ethiopians, the Eritreans, the Filipinos and the Chinese are full of people. There are bottles of beer on the tables and the flickering television screens air programs in a host of strange languages.
Rental apartments in the area are bursting with tenants and their belongings, the prices are going sky high – higher than in upscale Ramat Aviv Gimmel – because there’s no other part in the city where people are willing to rent places to foreigners.
“There’s life on the shoulders – don’t trample it,” says a shop sign near the station, with an Israeli flag in the background, referring to cyclists on the roads.
Evening comes to Levinsky Park nearby, and with it the night chill. The volunteers from the Lasova nonprofit association, which provides food, clothing and shelter to immigrants and other people in need, are distributing hot meals. The line is getting longer. The justice minister was quoted in the newspaper the other day as saying these miserable asylum seekers are “an existential danger” to the State of Israel.” In another paper a member of the Tel Aviv city council proposed running separate buses for foreigners “because of their smell.”
Meanwhile, ducks are swimming in a puddle on Hahaganah Street, there’s an illuminated office building belonging to the Mountain Moving Company – and here is the catering hall we’re looking for, hiding in the backyard of an ugly gray building near the ramp to the Ayalon Highway, not far from the Tel Aviv branch of the Yisrael Beitenu party.
You go down a few steps and already the music is deafening. This is a factory that was recently transformed into an Eritrean catering hall: White fluorescent light illuminates the cheap red carpets covering the floor, colorful balloons float up toward the ceiling, and there are row upon row of long tables, covered with flowered plastic tablecloths.
Three elegantly dressed Eritreans sit at the entrance, behind two cartons that look like ballot boxes, with a pile of white envelopes next to them. Each guest takes an envelope, writes his name and his congratulatory message on the front in Tigrinya, the “local” language, puts a banknote or two inside and inserts it in the box.
Just like us, but less: NIS 100-NIS 200 per guest. Just like us, but less: These people don’t pile up the food on the plates. Just like us, but more: Some of the guests here are far more elegantly dressed than we are, on average.
Here is the finest in central bus station fashion: two- and even three-piece suits made of shiny fabric, the pride of the well-known fashion house Pogal Classic, whose name appears on the sleeves of the suits. The less well-off guests came in their work clothes.
The women are a negligible minority here. Their hair is sculpted – each head is a work of art – and they are wearing beautiful embroidered African dresses.
Rolls of toilet paper serve as the house napkins, a roll of it on every table; the wedding feast is served on disposable plates. It’s a buffet: Behind the counter stand the female servers, also elegant in appearance, serving the best of traditional cuisine: On a bed of spongy injera bread, they serve a chicken-and-bean dish. There’s no cutlery, and the Carlsberg flows like water.
A royal canopy has been set up at the end of the hall: two white armchairs sit in the shadow of the canopy, one for her, one for him; next to them, two rows of chairs also covered in white, for the bridesmaids and ushers. On two glass tables there are two bottles – Johnny Walker Red Label and Finlandia – for the bride and groom, who got married this morning in a Jaffa church. A colorful poster in the background bears portraits of the couple: Jamal Yohans and Amleset Tesfaldet.
The mother-in-law was not there to tell the waiters what to do, but an uncle and aunt are here, straight from Holland. Dessie Fessehazion and Wezenet Bakray arrived yesterday from the Dutch town of Zwolle. She is the bride’s aunt; her partner is dressed in traditional all-white, including a turban and a staff in his hand.
The two have been living in Holland for the past 30 years, and received full citizenship after only four years. Now they swear that they’ll never set foot in Israel again: They were delayed at Ben-Gurion airport for three hours, after declaring they had come for the wedding – which is actually an illicit wedding of illegal residents. In another moment they would have been expelled; only at the last second did the Israeli immigration authorities change their minds and miraculously allow them to enter. The couple is sleeping in a hotel room by Jamal’s boss. This evening they are apparently the responsible adults here, the only representatives of either of the families.
A wedding band with a keyboard player, a singer and a musician playing an electric Eritrean stringed instrument offers lively wedding music. Aklilu Mekonnen is the wedding photographer. He has lived in Jerusalem for 17 years, and is actually the official wedding photographer of the entire community, with a blog on which he presents his work. Abel, a cute Eritrean boy of 11, a student at the Nofim school , also takes pictures. And there are also two video photographers, just in case.
The smell of the food wafts in the air. The guests are waiting for the bride and groom. Aklilu says it’s impossible to get a limousine in Tel Aviv on Saturday nights: The Eritreans rent them all. Amleset and Jamal will be arriving soon in a taxi. The men stand shoulder to shoulder, offering a masculine Eritrean embrace; the women kiss their cheeks. Outside they’re already trying out the fireworks.
It is nightfall, and the big moment has arrived: The usher-and-bridesmaid pairs enter the hall with dancing steps, wearing identical clothing – purple dresses for the women, gray suits and purple ties for the men. They make their way slowly toward the canopy, until the moment arrives: Amleset and Jamal enter. She wears a beautiful dress sparkling with sequins, a train and a generous decolletage; he is in a very elegant suit, the tie studded with sparkling stones. They also walk slowly, in measured and rhythmic dancing steps.
Actually they look like the least happy people here this evening. The photographer Aklilu tells me that the match was made by their parents in Eritrea. So Amleset came to Israel ostensibly because of love. The fireworks pop and sparkle, the band plays, there are sounds of celebration, and the new couple take their places on the white armchairs beneath the canopy, to the cheers of the crowd.
A circle of guests break into a dance and the floor becomes increasingly crowded, mainly with perspiring men, many of whom are extremely graceful. A machine fires soap bubbles until the entire space is filled with delicate illusions. The dancing becomes increasingly wild, creating a breathtaking sight. Between one African song and the next is suddenly heard: “Dance with me tonight, a romantic dance in the moonlight” by Israeli singer Yishai Levi.
One of the ushers, Sammy, who works on ordinary days as a cleaner in the Carmel Market and says he was harshly abused on his way to Israel via Egypt, serves us vodka, straight from the wedding table. Today we’re the foreigners here.
At 11 P.M., we head out into the night. On the remains of a platform in the old bus station sits an asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast warming his bare feet by a bonfire that he has made for himself. A violent fistfight erupts outside the door of another Eritrean wedding in the station complex. Under the playground equipment in Levinsky Park, the latest ones to arrive in Israel, those who haven’t found a place of refuge as yet, are curled up.
Good night, wedding; good morning, reality.