Memoir recalls diplomats rise from Bedouin village to San Francisco

The real-life adventures of Ishmael Khaldi started 38 years ago in a two-room tent in a small Bedouin village with no running water or electricity.

These humble beginnings make him feel even more proud that he grew to travel the world and serve his country as its first Bedouin Muslim diplomat.

“Growing up in a tent doesn’t mean you can’t reach San Francisco and be a diplomat — it means the sky’s the limit,” Khaldi said during a phone interview from Tel Aviv, where he now lives. “If you want to achieve something, of course you are able, but you have to invest.”

Khaldi grew up in Khawalid, near the Galilee in Israel’s north, and eventually grew up to work for Israel’s foreign service, spending more than two years in San Francisco as the vice consul general.

His rise from the village to the streets of New York to the hills of San Francisco is chronicled in Khaldi’s new memoir, “A Shepherd’s Journey: The Story of Israel’s First Bedouin Diplomat.”

He began writing the book in 2009 while in the hills of Marin County — a place, he writes in his memoir, that reminds him of the Galilee.

“People all over wanted to hear my story, they were always talking to me about it all the time. So after a while I said, I can’t be everywhere, yet I still want to spread my story and the story of Israel,” Khaldi said.

So he started writing.

The result is a 130-page earnest and candid account of Khaldi’s childhood, college years and diplomatic experience.

Ishmael Khaldi in his native Israel. photo/elad gershgoren

“Being a spokesman for Israel is simply another way of defending my country, which is the mission and pleasure of my life,” he writes in his memoir.

From October 2006 to January 2009, Khaldi lived near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. As the vice consul general, he spoke at universities, churches and community centers. He spoke in Berkeley and in Redding. He often celebrated Shabbat with Chabad of S.F.

“The best times I ever had in San Francisco were Shabbat dinners at Rabbi Yosef Langer’s house,” Khaldi writes.

Even though he is not Jewish, those evenings were joyful because they reminded him of the hospitality of his homeland.

“Bedouin culture is very open. No invitations are needed to visit,” Khaldi writes. “Yet I found that here in America, you needed to make a plan, make a date, RSVP in advance. How odd, strange and alienating. Only with my friends at Chabad did I feel I was welcome at any time.”

Khaldi spends a lot of the book telling humorous stories from his childhood and about his first trip to New York  — where he arrived with only a basic understanding of English and the [no longer correct] phone number of a friend.

Luckily, someone told him to go to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But while waiting for his train in the subway, he realized he was on the wrong platform.

Instead of going back up the stairs and down to the other side, he simply ran across the tracks. He later found out just how dangerous that shortcut was. The illustration on the cover of his book pays homage to his innocent mistake.

In Brooklyn, Khaldi connected with a Chassidic family who happily hosted him for a few weeks until he found a place to stay.

His endearing personal stories are complemented by political insights and observations based on his experience as the vice consul general.

“Do Israel’s Arab citizens suffer from disadvantages? Yes they do,” he writes. “Do African Americans and other minorities living 10 minutes from the [U.C.] Berkeley campus suffer from disadvantages? The answer is also an emphatic, ‘yes.’ So should we launch a Berkeley Apartheid Week? Or should we seek real ways to better our societies and make opportunities available to more people?”

Since leaving the Bay Area last year, Khaldi has been working in Israel’s foreign service under Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

In October, he will return to the Bay Area as part of a North American speaking tour.

“I am a Bedouin. We are used to moving, relocating. It’s in my blood,” Khaldi said. “I loved San Francisco, and I miss San Francisco. I was sad to leave not just the place, but the people I connected with. They were unbelievable. I still feel I am part of the place there. I became part of their lives.”

 “A Shepherd’s Journey: The Story of Israel’s First Bedouin Diplomat” (130 pages, $21). Information: www.ishmaelkhaldi.com.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.