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The Egyptian Plumber and My ‘Eurabia’ Problem

The toilet in my Milan apartment hadn’t worked for weeks. Standing outside the entrance to the bathroom, I listened to the sounds of the plumber applying his tools, speaking in hushed Arabic to his assistant. My wife had let them in while I’d been out walking our dogs.

Always indexing the languages spoken in our neighborhood, my father — who grew up speaking Arabic — noted at least three different dialects when he visited me there, before we moved to Germany. This was in addition to the Tamil, French and Spanish we heard daily. This was still the first time, though, that we’d heard Arabic spoken in our own home.

Shukran” (“Thank you”), I said to the plumber as he packed up his bags. “Where are you from?” I asked him in Italian. Startled by my American accent, the plumber quickly replied, in fluent English: “Cairo. I’m from Egypt. But I’ve been in Milan for 10 years.”

The Green Menace?: A Turkish woman stands alongside an anti-fascist message on May Day in Berlin?s Kreuzberg section. Image by JOEL SCHALIT

His nationality made sense, perhaps because I’d lived with an Egyptian once, in boarding school, and there was something about the guy — his accent, maybe — that reminded me of my former roommate, a multilingual sophomore who hailed from Alexandria.

More immediately, I’d expected to hear the word “Egyptian” by association, because an accomplice of Milan’s first suicide bomber was also from Egypt, and it had been on my mind. Italy’s newspapers had the bomber’s age as 52, about the same age as our plumber.

Three weeks before, Mohammed Game, a Libyan immigrant, had blown himself up inside the city’s Santa Barbara military barracks, injuring a soldier and losing both of his own eyes, and his arm, in the explosion. His intention was to protest the 3,100 Italian troops in Afghanistan.

An unemployed 35-year-old father of two who squatted with his Italian wife and children in a housing project on the outskirts of town, Game was determined by authorities to have been assisted by two other Muslims, including a middle-aged Egyptian plumber, Mahmoud Kol.

Italy’s media made a great deal of the event, coming, as it did, in a charged political environment in which the country’s right-wing parties were already attacking Muslim immigration. Three weeks earlier, a suicide bomber had killed several Italian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Italians were stunned.

“I shouldn’t make such associations,” I said, berating myself, as I saw off our plumber. After all, Milan has an extremely large Muslim-Arab population (5.2%, according to one recent study). And we lived in Piazzale Loreto, at the entrance to Via Padova, home of the city’s best-known Arab neighborhood. Why not a plumber from Cairo?

Anyone wanting to get a taste of the “Eurabia” bemoaned by conservatives should visit our former neighborhood, if not Milan as a whole. In Italy’s financial capital, home to its leader, Silvio Berlusconi, and the country’s fashion industry, Arabs are literally everywhere. But the story that “they don’t just make döner kebabs, but fertilizer bombs” is too close to the ways that Jews have historically been viewed in Europe for comfort. As with Jewish immigrants, it’s common to discover Arab immigrants working hard to conform and integrate without any desire to undermine the status quo.

Still, for Jews, Israelis and Americans in Europe, the first impulse is often to worry about Arab migrants. A 29-year-old Tel Aviv native in East Berlin (where I’ve been living since March), summed it up best when she told me the reason that she doesn’t like to visit Neukölln, the Turkish-Arab district in the southeastern part of the city: “I’m an anarchist. I think Middle Eastern immigration to Germany is good. But I lived through the second intifada, and Muslims scare me.”

In many European cities, it can feel impossible to escape the Middle East. In our immediate neighborhood, for example — I live two blocks from my Tel Avivian friend — there are six Arab-run falafel places. In Berlin, like Milan, it’s common to hear Arabic on the street. And there is a lot of anti-Israeli graffiti. Though the graffiti and slogans were probably penned by German leftists and not by Muslim immigrants, superficially it all fits together, suggesting an ethnic bias that’s amplified by the absence of a large Jewish community. This is made worse by periodic local violence between Muslims and Jews in Europe, usually over Israel.

Obviously, the complexity of the situation can be fear inspiring. Even for people who regard themselves as progressives, like my friend, like myself, it is difficult not to wonder, for example, whether I was doing business with the same plumber who had assisted Game in his failed suicide mission. How do we break out of this?

I’d start by figuring out what’s to be gained. In my position, as a Jew who lives in Germany, who interacts more frequently with Muslims on a daily basis than I ever did in Israel or America, the benefits would be twofold. Foremost is the “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” effect: the idea that it might be possible to have routine daily interactions, unaffected by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Imagine living without that anxiety.

At their worst, our stresses would be interpersonal. They’d be about business disagreements rather than cultural boycotts or colonial ideology. At their best, such interactions would make it reasonable to imagine Jew-Arab cooperation without idealization or controversy — in other words, to conjecture a multicultural future, typical of Jewish relations with other minority groups in today’s Diaspora.

For example, in June, at the height of Israeli-Turkish recriminations over the Gaza flotilla raid, my wife and I purchased an apartment from a devout Turkish family in the southernmost part of Neukölln. When the hijab-wearing lady of the house learned that I’m an Israeli citizen, one could not even begin to recount how thrilled she was to be selling her home to Jewish migrants rather than to, well, Germans.

For progressive people like myself and my anarchist friend, such experiences are ideal antidotes to the anxieties we carry with us that our Arab plumbers might be suicide bombers, or that Neukölln might turn out to be as dangerous as a Jerusalem pizzeria during the second intifada. The fact that such events could transpire in a place like Berlin, with its Nazi history, makes them even more meaningful.

Perhaps the ultimate value that such events communicate is the idea that contemporary Europe could also be a home to Jews. So influential has the idea become of Muslim immigration to Europe constituting an especially significant threat to Jewry that it is hard to imagine friendly exchanges like this ever taking place. Not just as aberrations or exceptions, but as an increasingly politically determined rule.

Is Europe actually as important to Jews as Israel, or the United States? Bat Ye’or, (nee Gisele Littman, nee Orebi), an Egyptian-born Jewish historian, seems to think so, and her book “Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis” (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005) tries to provide every conceivable reason for this. Widely read by conservatives, its memorable title has become the epithet of choice for a Europe taken over by Muslims.

In reality, though, “Eurabia” is a synonym for Jewish anxiety about living in a community with Muslims, and the book’s negative view of Europe is a reflection of this. The advent of the European Union, as a unified immigrant destination, so it goes, signifies the death of Western civilization, as Judeo-Christian values are swamped by Muslim hordes.

To be fair, the book “Eurabia” is more concerned with ideology than with immigration. Nevertheless, what’s fascinating about how Bat Ye’or spells out all this is the role that anti-Semitism plays in her argument. So central is “Judeophobia” to her sense of what is wrong with Europe, so totalizing is her view of its institutionalization as a pan-European political policy, that the EU is almost indistinguishable from Nazi Germany. Becoming more Muslim, more Arab-friendly, means becoming ironically, more like “old” Europe.

Even if you disagree with her, you walk away from Bat Ye’or’s portrait of the EU sensing the persistence of a profound racism on the continent. It’s a racism that, even if it has nothing to do with Jews, partakes of the logic of a classical anti-Semitism that paints Jews as powerful, disloyal conspirators. It would not be wrong to read the book allegorically, as a treatise on both Islamophobia and Judeophobia, in which Muslims are inheriting a form of racism honed on the Jews of Europe. Of course, contemporary prejudices appear quite different, since Muslims and Jews occupy radically different social spaces in Europe.

To any observer of European life, one of the most common themes in cities like Milan and Berlin is how poor most of the Muslim immigrants are. Hanging around Piazzale Loreto, hoping for pickup work, making falafel in Friedrichshain, the first thing that their presence raises is poverty, not empowerment. Would they have come here if they had more work opportunities at home? Why do we so easily convert such economic aspirations into a will to ethnic power?

Rather than digress into an academic account of what fuels Jewish fear of Muslims, I find it increasingly significant to take seriously my own experiences, in light of how others might frame them. When I hear of Europe misrepresented as a Nazi-loving caliphate instead of a multicultural space in which Jews and Muslims cohabit, it conflicts with my lived experience of 21st-century Europe.

I can’t think of a more fortunate place to have been forced to confront such contradictions than Germany. In the very country that devised the Final Solution, that I would have my fears of Muslims eroded by a Turkish woman eager to sell me her home has its own psychological value. Of course, cynics will argue that I’m a sucker, that she just wanted my money. All I can say is that I found a great apartment in a terrific, cosmopolitan city, where my wife and I are uniquely welcome. Here’s to enjoying the benefits of “Eurabia.”

Joel Schalit’s most recent book is “Israel vs. Utopia” (Akashic Books, 2009).

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