The Passenger
Youth Hostel... Or Employment Agency?
By Sarah Topol

I’m in the heart of Tel Aviv, sitting at a high table in a hostel. My feet dangle and I steady myself by hooking them into the chair. I’m eating cheap Chinese food across from a guy I met the day before, who doesn’t know how to use chopsticks. “It’s easy,” I laugh, showing him, but he keeps dropping his chicken miles before it reaches his mouth. Marc had never tasted Chinese food before he got to Israel, where he arrived from South Africa a year and a half ago. He’s staying at the hostel with two close friends, and he doesn’t know when he’s going home. None of them do.

It’s easy to explain how I got to this table: I wanted to get out of the country, I accepted a free ticket from Birthright Israel, extended my stay and meandered around Israel.  For Marc, Vinny, and their other friend, a girl whose name I no longer remember, the explanations are much more complicated.

When I arrived at the hostel I had put my shit on a lower bunk in the girl’s room. She seemed distant and pissed off to find me there, so I set off to explore the shouq (market) taking place in the center of the square. As I lit a cigarette outside the hostel, the girl and a guy emerged from the doors. She didn’t stop, but the boy invited me to join them. Together we wandered the streets of Tel Aviv, bought ice cream, and smoked cigarettes. I didn’t speak much. 

After the walk, the boy, Marc, introduced me to his roommate Vinny. Vinny was massive, 6’4 at least, blonde, grey-eyed and built like the rugby player he once was. Mark was probably 6 foot, skinny as a stick,.  The girl left, and I sat in the darkened room with two guys from South Africa, the ceiling fan swinging pathetically, unable to push the humid air.

They smoked some pot; I continued chain smoking my Marlboro Lights, steadily filling their beer-bottle-cap ashtrays with butts.

“What are you guys doing here?” I asked, no longer able to contain my curiosity about two non-Jewish South Africans in Israel. Marc laughed.

“What are we doing in this fucking stupid country?” he asked Vinny, who was more serious.

“Fucking trying to get to England,” he answered.

They told me that their being there had to do with the abolition of apartheid. There’s no longer work for the white youth of South Africa, they said, so parents send their kids abroad. Marc’s dad wanted him to go, and Vinny wanted to get away. If I remember correctly, Vinny’s best friend’s dad, white, had been lynched close to the time he decided to leave. They came to Israel, one of the only countries that would let them in, overstayed their visa, didn’t bother to renew it, and now try to find work on Kibbutzes.

Mark and Vinny dodge the cops and use their spare money to buy cigarettes, pot and beer, Neither identifies with their parents; Marc continually referred to his father as a fucking bastard. They bounce around the country working as farm laborers, trying to save cash to get somewhere else. Where, they aren’t sure. No one sends them money and they don’t complain.

 The hostel we stayed in is famed in the underground South African illegal travelers ring. There were at least 10 other South Africans passing through the hostel in the three days I was there. I found out why on my first night, while sitting in the “family room” around midnight. Ashtrays cluttered the room. (Israel is a smoker’s paradise.) As I spoke with a South African guy in his early 30s, a sudden  crackling sound filled the room and a hidden voice said something about a man needed for a construction job the following day. One of the guys got up and left.

 “What is going on?” I asked my companion.

“It’s the intercom,” he said.

The hostel is part of an underground network in which restaurant and construction companies call the hostel, say they need someone to wash dishes, clean houses, or lay bricks, the announcement goes over the intercom and someone picks up the phone. There’s some spending money, if they get paid at all.  Employers know the South Africans are there illegally, so sometimes they don’t pay.

That’s where the girl had gone, to wash dishes. The next day Vinny would go work on a construction project. Marc wasn’t working; he was on a four day “vacation” between Kibbutz jobs.

“Fucking brilliant system,” Marc says.

This girl made everything I learned at the hostel even more interesting. She’d been in Israel for almost 2 years and hated the country with a passion I’d not yet seen. One morning I told her I was hungry and asked her to join me for breakfast. She declined and offered me a sandwich she got for free from the restaurant she washed dishes in the night before. I asked her if she was hungry, and she said her boyfriend told her she was too fat and so she was on a diet. A boyfriend, easy bonding, I thought, and asked her about him. He’s an Arab, she loves him. They had been together for almost the entire time she had been in Israel. During our conversation he called her cell phone twice to make sure she was not with any of the guys. She said he was jealous.

She told me that South African girls in Israel usually got jobs as au pairs for rich Jewish families. She had been fired from her last au pair job after a year and a half because her employers found out she had an Arab boyfriend.  She hoped they rotted in hell. She didn’t know when she would leave or where she would go--not back to South Africa, where the ‘blackies’ were taking up all the jobs, she said.

We spent the next two days running wild in Tel Aviv. They only ate one meal a day, for lack of funds.  Guiltily, I snuck off to eat more than that. We wandered around markets, me looking for things to buy friends at home, Marc bargaining for more CDs, the girl looking for flip-flops. When we saw some cops Marc requested that we all cross the street, but laughed and said they would just pretend to be American like me. The cops would never hassle a nice American Jewish girl visiting her ‘homeland,’ they laughed.

Marc knew enough Hebrew to bargain, but that was about it. Considering the time they had been there, I was in awe.

“Why haven’t you learned the language?” I asked them.

“Hate this language and the people here,” they responded, “besides we’re all leaving someday.”

Marc and Vinny and the girl were like me: lost and confused about what they wanted from the future, partying and hoping they would eventually figure it out. Marc didn’t have much money but would go play video games in Internet cafes for hours, sitting back and like college guys in their dorm rooms. Marc and I saw ‘Bruce Almighty’ at the movie theater across the street from the hostel, then he bought us both coffee at an outdoor cafe, saying he was about to get some money from a Kibbutz job. He made me sit and listen to his favorite songs on a Discman. We drank, they smoked pot on the balcony of the hostel, and, Marc and Vinny took turns with my digital camera as we assaulted the people passing under us on the streets of the square

When someone below looked up and spotted us, we collapsed in hysterical laughter.