A Story of Exile

The Sukkot War in Torino

“Palestinian?” he asked. “Yes,” the man replied. “Do you live in Torino?” “No,” he said. “In Ivrea.”

Solidarity graffiti, Porta Palazzo.

If you want to understand how international northwest Italy is, it doesn’t get any clearer than that.

Waiting in line to pick up our work permits (Permesso di Soggiorno), their conversation was all too familiar.

Standing behind them in the same line, I’d clued into their conversation when I heard them speaking in Arabic.

In particular, words familiar to Hebrew and an Israeli-sounding phrase that put the men on the map for me.

The irony could not have been more welcome. We were all immigrants waiting for the same document.

A week after the Sukkot War began, it was like we were starting over somewhere else, subject to another state.

The synergy evaporated when I pulled out my Israeli passport to show the Questura.

The man in front of me saw it and immediately pivoted away.

We’ll never know each other. But for a brief moment, the conflict had been behind us.

Not that it had been resumed. Considering the situation, discovering who I am was likely a source of awkwardness.

It’s not hard to understand why.

Torino is like that. You can fly here directly from Tel Aviv in three and a half hours.

Whether you’re a Jewish or Palestinian Israeli is immaterial.

The mid-sized Italian city, with its historic universities and big businesses, is an obvious draw.

It’s not unlikely we’ll run into each other here, and there could be some awkwardness.

Indeed, Torino has grown far more Middle Eastern in the decade I’ve known it.

While there has been an Egyptian community in the city dating back to the 1970s, when I first visited in 2011, many Syrian refugees were also arriving.

After watching a demonstration against Bashar al-Assad, I talked to several of them, who refused to go on record.

“We’re all Palestinians from the Damascus area,” one of them told me. “Our families have been there since 1948.”

A new Arab restaurant here, just below Piazzetta Primo Levi and the city’s only synagogue, gives a clue as to how they fared.

My first time there, I found copies of a book of poems by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish stacked on a table.

The menu was an even bigger giveaway. Musakhan, a Palestinian roasted chicken dish, was on the menu alongside the expected mezze.

Though it can be found throughout the northern Middle East, its national origin was amplified by the Darwish books.

Primo Levi, an outspoken critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians, would likely have welcomed the place.

Indeed, it is hard to escape the northern Middle East here, to leave its wars and culture and its politics behind.

One such trace is how increasingly common it is to hear Hebrew spoken on the street.

“Kidnapped”, Via Roma.

Now and then, I’ll stop someone when I hear it and ask them what they’re doing here. Most often, they’re students.

But, a visibly rising number are professionals, bringing their families to Torino to escape Israel’s decline under Netanyahu.

One such family visited our building a few weeks ago. A family of five, to be precise, from the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra’anana.

They were looking at a flat being remodelled on the first floor that turned out to be too small.

Haaretz ran a weekend feature not long after that about Israelis tired of the political situation at home, relocating here.

I’d heard about his particular stream of people moving here before.

I’d interviewed for a job with an Israeli expat, who turned out to have known my late father, who said he was trying to set up a community.

But there was no job at the end of the chat, and I didn’t stay in touch. This was the first time I’d thought anything about it since.

As pleasantly removed as these overlaps sound, it’s not always that way. Reality has a nasty habit of reasserting itself.

Last weekend, I tried to cover a demonstration against the war in a migrant-heavy neighbourhood in the northern part of Torino.

Police vans full of paramilitary Carabinieri were parked everywhere, plainclothes cops staring pedestrians down.

I got so many sharp looks from them I decided to retreat.

I’d just photographed a series of flyers of captured Israelis. My spirits were low already, and I didn’t want to tempt fate.

Besides, my iPhone kept beeping with WhatsApp alerts, and I figured it’d be safer to get a cappuccino and see what was up.

Ever since the Sukkot War started, I’ve been messaging with my family in Israel non-stop. Some relatives more than others.

One of the most challenging aspects of these exchanges has been getting information it was hoped would change European hearts and minds.

When you’re a journalist, that’s what your family does. Everyone always has a scoop for you. Not just your Israeli cousins.

But in Israel, it’s an old custom of sharing Israel-positive content abroad to blunt Antisemitism and pro-Palestinian bias.

I mostly don’t respond because it’s a horrible situation, and you have to let those close to you express their anxiety.

You’re their journalistic outlet. At least someone on the outside they know is listening, even if they disagree.

That person is often me, for several people. This war is no different than all the others.

This piece of writing is a way of expressing that. Of being relieved about getting out but feeling guilty about being gone.

I can revel in the fact that I’m not alone and that there are many people like me here. But it’s still a story of exile.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.