By Leon Rosselson
Originally posted on Medium
November 24th, 2017
This is a true story. Or maybe it isn’t. Who knows and anyway does it matter? Every story has its roots in an unreliable memory.
It is 1959. Israel has been welcoming new immigrants for the past decade; some are more welcome than others. Lise comes from Tunis. She lives with her husband, 10 children and a goat in one room in the old town of Beersheva. Immigrants from N. Africa and the Arab countries are ranked low in the hierarchy and so are given the worst accommodation.
The goat sleeps under the bed, the 10 children on a mattress on the floor. Her husband works when he can find it, which isn’t often. A couple of the boys do odd jobs, delivering ice blocks and vegetables on a home-made cart. Sometimes one of them manages to steal something good and there is a celebration. Lise earns money by scrubbing the floors in local cafes. She is tall and dark, poorly dressed, with a string of beads round her neck. She holds herself with great dignity and seems to possess immense patience and an uncomplaining acceptance of her lot.
In Tunis she agreed to an arranged marriage with her husband, although she loved somebody else, and says she will arrange marriages for her daughters, too. The journey of her life, she believes, has been settled for her and it is pointless, even ridiculous to protest.
And yet in the matter of a flat, she did protest and she did find it ridiculous.
She had been told many times that it just wasn’t right, wasn’t healthy for a family of 12 and a goat to live in one room. Not in these civilised times.
“Yes,” she said, and smiled. ”But what can I do?”
“Go to the Town Hall. Ask for a bigger place.”
So she went and she asked. The clerk told her brusquely that it was impossible, there were no flats available, there was a long waiting list; but if she could put down 500 Israeli pounds, something might be done.
“I don’t have 500 Israeli pounds,” said Lisa.
“Sorry,” said the clerk.
In Israel, even in those days, corruption was rife. It was always a matter of knowing the right people. Protectsia they called it. I remember once, late at night, being in a car with friends, and the driver, more than slightly drunk, circled a roundabout, then circled it again, then went round a third time and was stopped by a policeman. He got out to talk to the policeman, came back 5 minutes later and settled into the driver’s seat.
“What happened?” we shouted.
“Nothing. He apologised.”
Surprisingly, Lise wasn’t inclined to accept the clerk’s word. It didn’t make sense to her. Either there were flats available or there weren’t. What did 500 Israeli pounds have to do with it? No-one should have to live in one room with a husband, 10 children and a goat, she said to herself.
So she called a family conference. Her brother and two cousins came with their families and they all crowded into the one room to discuss what should be done. The goat was pushed under the bed and Lise’s smallest girl, who had just been bitten on her leg by a dog, slept heavily in her mother’s arms. The rest of the family racked their brains and tried to think of some way to help.
“Build your own flat,” said the brother.
“”Steal someone else’s flat when they’re not looking,” said the 10 year old boy.
A cousin suggested she write to Ben Gurion. “This is a democratic country. Write to him. Tell him you are living in one room with a husband, 10 children and a goat. Ask him to help you.”
So it was agreed and they settled down to write the letter.
Dear Prime Minister Ben Gurion,
I am sorry to trouble you. My name is Lise. I come from Tunis and have been in Eretz 8 years. I am living in one room with my husband, 10 children and a goat. It is very crowded and not healthy for the children. I have been to the Town Hall about a bigger place but I have not got 500 Israeli pounds to put down. I know you are a busy man but I hope you will be able to help me.
Peace be with you.
She folded it carefully and addressed the envelope to David Ben Gurion, Jerusalem.
Two weeks later, they received a reply. Lise opened the envelope with trembling fingers. The whole family, including the goat, crowded round. They couldn’t control their excitement or their impatience.
“Read it! Read it!” implored the children.
Lise read it slowly and with difficulty. Ben Gurion was sorry to hear of their plight. They must realise, however, that there was a difficult housing problem which the government was doing its best to solve. In general, it was true that 500 Israeli pounds had to be put down before getting a flat. But in this case, he went on, an exception might be made and he would be glad to help them. If they would take this letter to the Town Hall, they would be able to get a flat for only half that amount: 250 Israeli pounds.
They were overjoyed. “What a good man he must be,” said Lise. And the next Sunday, dressed in their best clothes, they set off for the Town Hall, Lise proudly carrying the letter from Ben Gurion, her husband, the 10 children of assorted sizes and the goat following behind.
The clerk didn’t seem very pleased to see them.
“Have you got 500 Israeli pounds?” he asked.
Lise looked at him disdainfully and handed over the letter. The clerk read it, saw the signature and hurried off to show it to his superior. His superior came, looked at the family patiently waiting, scratched his bald head and sent a message to his superior. Finally, the Head of the Housing Department came, read the letter, saw the signature, looked at the family and swelled with rage.
“What do you mean by writing to Ben Gurion? Do you think he’s got nothing better to do than listen to your complaints? Why didn’t you come to us? What are we here for? Did you have to run and tell tales to Ben Gurion?”
And he stalked off muttering to himself.
“See what you’ve done?” said the clerk.
“What about the flat?” said Lise.
“The Director has approved your application. For 250 Israeli pounds.”
Lise was satisfied. Of course, she didn’t have 250 Israeli pounds and, the last time I saw her, was still living in one room with her husband, the 10 children and the goat. But it was victory of a sort, wasn’t it? She took tremendous pride and delight in telling everyone the story, including me, and then would laugh uproariously at the whole ridiculous affair.