Mahtab

By Inbal, Israel

Last summer I started working at an NGO in Athens, Greece, and after two weeks of living by myself in an apartment assigned by the organization, I had to move into another apartment. In the new apartment, I had a roommate who had just quit our NGO and was waiting to start another job in the city.

My new roommate asked me if I minded if a girl could sleep on our living-room couch for about a week until she gets settled. I said I didn’t mind, although I really did mind because even one roommate took some getting used to. But I said okay because she was really thankful and promised not to occupy too much of our space and we worked for most of the day anyway.

It turned out that this week lasted a month and that this girl wasn’t your typical guest; she wasn’t the type to quietly blend in or make herself unnoticed. She was noticed. And like a typhoon in our living room, even long after her departure, her presence in our apartment was as real as our own.

Mahtab was an Iranian-born Canadian and she had a scattered-all-over-the-place spirit. On my first encounter with her, the afternoon I moved in, she was busy in the kitchen making an eggplant dish, and then moving between the kitchen and the bathroom where she was preparing a facial cleanser from rose water and apple cider and some yellow product (a day later she made me my own cleanser in a little juice bottle). She had many self-made products; oils, cosmetics, creams, all sorts of natural edible products that were filling up the kitchen cupboards, fridge, and bathroom.

Her suitcases and bags in the living room burst with things, all kinds of things that she often gave away, like items of her elegant clothing or other stuff she had accumulated. There was never stillness in the space she occupied and it was always full of her. When there was nothing to do she would do yoga; her movements and stretches dominating the energy in the room.

During the month she stayed over with us she managed to come and go so often it made me question the levels of my own energy. There was the Omonia market where she would purchase overflowing bags of vegetables and a special vegan cheese, befriending all the shopkeepers as well as the doorman downstairs (and his wife), the cleaning lady and the pharmacist. She knew all the supermarkets around our neighborhood and which products are the best to buy where. She also knew where the fuse box of our apartment was, down in the basement, and one night, when there was a blackout, she led us there- rushing down the stairs as her long dark hair was waving over on the back of her nightgown- and in her frantic rhythm started opening and closing each cabinet until she found the right switches.

She would make multiple plans to visit places, or spontaneously pack and leave for a weekend on some island, or the beach, or for a week in Iran before having to go back to Canada and then off to Jordan before her new job in Afghanistan.

One day I came home to find a Farsi-labeled tube of zinc cream on my pillow. She used zinc a lot for some kind of skin irritation and I made jokes about it, so she naturally made a mental note and got me one. She also brought bags of rice for another friend, Iranian sweets for the lady over at the pharmacy, and tea bags with cardamom, the smell of which took me back to my Afghan grandmother’s small kitchen in Southern Tel-Aviv, where she would put it in small glasses with sugar cubes.

It was June and everyone would go to the beaches around Athens on weekends. Mahtab and I were constantly on a tanning contest, so we would tease each other about how untanned the other was and we would hold up our arms to compare. Once, we were comparing legs and as it was evident that day that I was tanner than she was, I said: “Israel 1- Iran 0”. She laughed and then repeated what I said in a “you’re delusional” kind of tone. I said it instinctively and it was pretty funny considering the situation, but I was glad I COULD say it. It was okay. She would speak fondly of Iran, saying the love she feels for her country, she would never feel for Canada. When she came back from her week in Iran, she told me about an encounter she had with a friend of hers at his house. The house was on top of a hill overlooking part of the city. She told me she said to him “Man… I missed this view” and she said it in a way that made me want to see what she saw and feel exactly what she felt standing there.

Mahtab and I had a mutual friend from the NGO, Waa’el. He was Palestinian-Cuban and was living and working in Athens due to his Greek citizenship. Very different from both of us, Waa’el was calm, down to earth and took his time. The three of us got together a few times. We would talk about work, or about if we were happy. He would smile his tranquil, all-knowing smile and let us continue dominating the conversation. On our last get-together, Waa’el was escorting us to our apartment. We were walking a few steps behind him, teasing each other about something as usual, and I noticed him from the back, smiling his peaceful smile as he was listening to us. Mahtab told him: “You see what I have to put up with?” Then we all hugged and said goodbye.

I thought about that scene later, about Mahtab and me, and about us and Waa’el. About how there was something that wasn’t said. We never spent time talking about peace. We never said: I think it’s great that we’re talking to each other although I’m Iranian, or Israeli or Palestinian. We weren’t avoiding it either, but our chemistry wasn’t affected by it, one way or another. We weren’t together to “give peace a chance”. We were living it, through circumstances and mutual endearment.

I don’t know whether Waa’el or Mahtab had issues with my country. Honestly, they probably did. But they had no issues with me. We were naturally interacting the way people interact, for good or bad. And I think that this is what I’m most hopeful for, that this human connection was so natural and automatic.

I still receive WhatsApp photos from Mahtab’s various locations. She used to express frustration over how she can’t come to Israel and get that black, shiny hair treatment I told her about, or visit the Dead Sea and cover her skin with the mineral-rich mud. Months later, when she was at the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, I received a message from her. Under a picture of her covered in salty water, there was a message asking if I’ll come to “high five” her at the border.

This is just one example of the important work produced byYaLa’s citizen journalists, a program funded by the European Union’s Peacebuilding Initiative in order to enable young leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa to document and share their experiences of the region. 

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