Last month, I traveled to Israel for a conference on peace and tourism. Something, however, disturbed my personal peace from the moment I stepped off the plane.
"I get your bag for you," said the baggage handler, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He then asked me a series of questions that soon became all too familiar: "What your name? Where you staying? How long you be here? You married? Can I take you out?"
Middle Eastern men. I was overwhelmed by their relentless pursuit. From the waiter who poured my morning coffee to the taxi driver who drove me to my hotel at night, I was hit on so consistently I found it difficult to focus on anything else.
At first, I couldn't understand why I was a target; after all, I'm no Queen Esther, especially compared to the tanned, svelte Israeli women who decorate Tel Aviv's beaches.
I'll admit, I was flattered at first. Here in the states, I sometimes feel like I'd have to yell "fire!" to get a second glance at a bar or party. In Israel, I soaked up the attention like I did the Mediterranean sun. That is, until I realized the attention was nothing personal.
In the sense that a dog doesn't care if it chases a Pontiac or a Jaguar, these men didn't seem too concerned about whom they were pursuing. A dog chases a car not because it's beautiful, but because it's there. And if the dog doesn't catch the car, it isn't insulted; it merely skulks around until the next car drives down the street.
It's not that I'm comparing men to dogs, but after one day in the Holy Land, I was running out of gas. Flattery had turned to fatigue.
On a tour of Bethlehem, a group of Palestinian postcard salesmen attempted to buy me from a fellow journalist. They offered the man 250 camels for me. The incident was disturbing. After all, the bead necklace salesman down the block had offered 400 camels. My price was dropping.
After a day of being amorously approached by storekeepers and haggled over, I was spent. As I got off the tour bus, the one-eyed tour guide thanked me for coming, asked me to send him a copy of my travel stories and than grabbed my hand and looked at me in a way I can only describe as "oogie." Women will know what I mean.
As I attempted to free my fingers from his sweaty grasp, he said. "You're so nice. How long you be here? I call you. I take you out."
But it wasn't just cab drivers and tour guides who were chasing my bumper. The next day I interviewed a high-level Jordanian official. That evening, at a dinner hosted by Tel Aviv Mayor Rony Milo, I felt a large paw on my back and heard a whisper in my ear.
"I like your pants," the Jordanian said. After walking about 10 paces, he turned around and threw me a satisfied smile like a Cheshire cat.
As a foreigner, I tried to allow for cultural differences. I wasn't sure about the proper response to a Jordanian official's compliment about my pants. Do I say, "Thanks! I got 'em at Ross?" Do I tell him that his hand on my shoulder isn't exactly journalist-source etiquette? Something told me it would be like trying to tell Ralph Cramden that women can drive buses, too. He just wouldn't understand.
Bedraggled by these incidents, I complained to an American businessman who has lived in Israel for years. He informed me I was sending out the wrong message: In the Middle East, he told me, acting neutral was like acting positive, and acting negative was like acting neutral. I needed to toughen my attitude.
On the beach, I watched Israeli women, trying to see if this theory held water. Sure enough, I noticed two women, tanning on their stomachs with their bathing suit tops untied. When a man approached, they feigned sleep, completely ignoring him.
I saw one wink at the other as the tall, green-eyed man blathered on.
"Where are you from? That's a nice suit. You want drink? You swim in ocean? What's your name? What is this, I'm talking to myself." He ran off to chase someone else.
I attempted to follow the Israeli women's lead. Reading my book outside the Old City of Jerusalem's Arab market, I was approached by a young man in green jeans. I pretended I was deaf. After five minutes, he took off. If neutral works that fast, I thought I'd try to be downright rude the next time.
When another man sat by me, I kept my eyes fixated on the book and said simply, "Go away."
I had gone too far. "Why you in bad mood? Huh? Why? Why? What's your name? Why won't you talk to me?" It was unpleasant, but it taught me the best approach to Middle Eastern machismo: Be comatose — with just a twinge of vitriol. Tip the balance toward hostility and you may pay the price.
To be sure, not all Middle Eastern men are car-chasers. And not all car-chasers are bad people. Some, in fact, are quite charming. My neck permanently turned to the left by the 16-hour plane flight to Tel Aviv, I visited the hotel masseur. Motti made my day. He showered me with compliments, but was mercifully lacking in ooginess, which would have been hard to deal with wearing nothing but a towel. "You are healthy American girl. Good strong spine. Your smile — I love American smiles."
But aside from Motti, it wasn't until my last night that I finally got some peace in the Holy land.
When the Israeli equivalent of a Super Shuttle arrived to take me to the airport, a scramble ensued. I stood there on the corner with my bags, waiting for about six men inside the van to reseat themselves. None of the Chassidic passengers, it seems, wanted to sit alongside a woman in a sleeveless shirt and shorts.
I occupied the van's front seat — feeling Jerusalem's warm, evening air blowing on my face — totally, and blissfully, alone.