“First, you must steal or find Saharonim shoes,” James instructed me. “Otherwise, the people at the park will immediately suspect you.”
James is a veteran infiltrator, fully aware of the balance of power in the parallel universe of Levinsky Park, the Sudanese and Eritrean stronghold in southern Tel Aviv. This universe has its own codes of dress, language and behavior, and in order to fit in I had to receive comprehensive instructions. Wearing the right clothes wasn’t enough. For the purpose of the journalistic assignment I faced – posing as a refugee for a week – I had to cut my long hair and shave my beard, my two trademarks in the past seven years. In the State of Levinsky people notice the finest details, and James (pseudonyms are used throughout this story) asserted that I couldn’t have arrived from the desert with my dreadlocks and a well-groomed goatee.
“Ok, but what the hell are Saharonim shoes?” I ask James. Listen,” he replies, “when the infiltrators cross the border and are nabbed by the IDF, all of them – men, women, children, babies – are taken to Saharonim, the new detention center at the Negev. There, they get new shoes, sort of slippers, which they use when they arrive at Levinsky Park. Saharonim shoes are the trademark of every refugee in his first days in the park. If you arrive without them, they’ll suspect you. Be careful. As it is, you don’t look like an ordinary refugee.”
Eventually I met an infiltrator who agreed to sell me his Saharonim shoes for seven shekels. “When you go to sleep, put them under your head; otherwise you won’t find them in the morning,” he said. “You should know that they steal everything; anything that moves.”
‘Lie to the Israelis’
I enter the park wearing my new Saharonim shoes. Welcome to the State of Levinsky. Two slides and three swings, but this afternoon there are no children here; only infiltrators, most of them in their first days in Israel. My cover story has not been finalized yet, but luckily I run into Jeremiah, who’s been in Israel for three years now. “What do I tell those who ask how I got into Israel?” I ask him. “Lie,” he says. “Don’t tell the whole story. The Israelis, and mostly the non-profit groups working with the infiltrators here, like to be lied to.”
“Say you were a soldier, and that if you return to Eritrea you’ll get a death sentence. Keep in mind that you must be consistent with your story. The bottom line is that everyone uses the story I’m telling you here, and this way they fool everybody,” he says. “Almost none of them arrived on foot from Egypt to Israel. None of us crossed any deserts…it’s all nonsense.”
Evening descends on the park, and armed with the cover story I got I prepare for the first night in the State of Levinsky. I manage to get a bench, but my chances of falling asleep on it are slim. Too many things are happening around me: Infiltrators speaking in various languages, prostitutes looking for clients, and junkies. The fear is paralyzing and grows worse thanks to the darkness in the park. Ironically, the only light arrives from the nearby police station. Yet the whole night I did not see even one police officer in the area. As it turns out, Levinsky State has its own laws.
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Three Eritreans position themselves nearby. “How long have you been here?” asks one of them. “Not long,” I reply, and sigh. “I’m looking for an apartment, but I don’t have much money. “I’ll teach you how to make a quick buck here,” he says. “You can’t sleep here at Levinsky Park with these Sudanese; you’re humiliating yourself. An Eritrean does not sleep with Sudanese. The best thing to do if you want to make money is to steal cell phones…they’re sold like hotcakes here. There’s a market over there where you bring your cell phone, and that way you have a little money for food and drink.”
The next day, there are rumors that this night won’t be as ordinary. “Don’t walk around here today,” a few Eritreans warn me, the fear visible in their eyes. “There’s a protest here today.” Owners of Eritrean shops say the police advised them to close up early. By the afternoon, when the protestors start to gather, the infiltrators meet not far from Levinsky Park to hear some updates. I arrive there as well. Rumor has it that some groups are walking around the streets, spitting and threatening blacks. Other rumors speak of assaults. There’s much panic in the park.
By 7 pm, the atmosphere in the park is one of an imminent explosion. Yet at least one miracle takes place at this time: Several police officers come out of the nearby station and arrive at the park, maybe to calm the infiltrators and maybe to protect them should a hothead high on the speeches in the protest decide to settle the score with them.
'State of Levinsky' (Photo: Ofer Amram)
Somebody whispers a secret in my ear: The leadership of the foreigners is convened not too far away, working out the next move. I decide to try and join this meeting. Surprisingly, nobody asks any questions. I simply show up at the home and enter. The fiery session is run by an Israeli-born girl married to a refugee who speaks from her heart. One foreign leader stands up and says: “The violence amidst us is great, and first and foremost it hurts us. Those who arrive from Darfur, from Sudan or from Eritrea are obligated to give the Israeli residents a sense of safety. The violence is gnawing at us, harming us; another rape by a refugee and the game will be over. We are the ones responsible for our own fate.”
Later I return to Levinsky Park. Not too far away from here, Knesset Member Miri Regev speaks of a “cancer in our midst.” People at the park seek someone who would translate the Hebrew to them and what they meant when they said “cancer.” Each one adds his own commentary in his own language, but we can assume it didn’t sound good in any dialect. A short while later they started saying that storefronts and windshields are being shattered, and that there’s a mess outside, using the Hebrew word “Balagan.” It’s amazing to see how common this word is around here.
Stolen bicycle market
The next night I returned to Levinsky Park to sleep. I put my head between two refugees, half-awake, ready for any trouble. At 5 am, a strange sound prompted me to wake up. What is it? I squinted, and noticed movement among the people lying everywhere. Mice. Dozens of them, unnaturally large, climbing on people uninterruptedly, hunting for leftovers. Some of them reach my new neighbor. He kept a piece of bread and a little rice from the previous night, but the Levinsky mice had other plans. He woke up in the morning, and noticed that he has less food. “It’s the mice,” I said. He shrugged and started eating. When he saw the disgust on my face he said: “What? These mice were here years before us. We’re merely guests here.”
I decided to expand my walks and enter more corners in Levinsky State to see from up close how things really work around here. Quickly I discovered that here too there is a clear hierarchy, especially among the infiltrators who chose to turn to crime (this certainly does not all of them). For example, look at what takes place at the corner of Bnei Brak and Neve Shaanan Streets. Hundreds of people arrive in this area using the State of Levinsky’s official vehicle: Bicycle. The infiltrators refer to this area as the “Sudanese Quarter.” Nobody messes with them; they are exclusively in charge of the stolen bicycle market. Dozens of bikes, some of them brand new, are arranged in rows and sold for ridiculous sums.
I try to purchase a new bicycle, a well-known brand that must have cost its owner thousands of shekels. Here, their starting price stands at NIS 180. If one haggles, one can get it for less. They also make sure to provide good service: A mechanic is nearby and ensures that the brakes work properly and that every flat tire is taken care of. A big Sudanese man stands to the side and watches over. Someone quietly tells me that he is “one of the heads of the bicycle mafia.” The thieves bring him the bike, he pays them and sells the bicycle for a profit. All of this takes place in the middle of the street, out in the open.
Meanwhile, I’m told that the Eritreans control two other markets: Stolen bags and stolen cell phones. I went to look for a phone. The “sales center” is at the corner of Rosh Pina and Neve Shaanan Streets. Improvised stalls boast an impressive array of cellular devices. Some of them still contain family photos and the personal text messages of the victims they were stolen from.
On Friday morning, my Eritrean friends tell me that I must go see Nagasi, or things will get messy. I ask them to explain it. Nagasi is apparently the representative of the Eritrean government, or the unofficial Eritrean ambassador in the State of Levinsky, if you will. They tell me that Eritrean authorities don’t care why and how you arrived in Israel: They only want you to keep paying taxes to the homeland. How much? Two percent of your income. As there is no way to find out your income, most Eritreans pay a regular monthly fee of $100. “What will happen if I don’t pay?” I ask. “Bad things will happen, to you and to your family,” was the reply.
I promise to take care of this soon, but by now it’s Friday evening, and we are heading to the “Solomon.” As it turns out, it’s a three-story building that used to offer porn movies, before turning into a hostel for the homeless. Today it’s a sort of mega-club for infiltrators: Three floors, each featuring loud music, plenty of beer and much violence. It’s past midnight and the place is packed. The alcohol is being poured, and with it, the ethnic genies come out of the bottle. Suddenly, a wild brawl erupts pitting a Sudanese group against the Eritreans. Bottles are broken on heads, fists and chairs are used, and deep hatred is in the air, as if all these people do not share a similar fate here in Israel.
I get out of there and walk towards Levinsky Street. Two white vans carrying Border Guard police officers indicate that a new era may be underway. The minister of internal security promised it, and for the time being they are here, shutting down Levinsky’s illegal bars and dispersing the infiltrators. I thought this would be a safe place to call home, see how my family is doing and let them know I’m doing well. “Hey, come here,” I hear someone yelling nearby in Hebrew. It’s a young Border Guard policeman. “Where did you steal this phone, huh?” he groans. I manage to whisper that I’m actually Israeli, and he nods and rushes into the next bar.
For the next two days I looked into the attitude of veteran residents to infiltrators. I walked around the new central bus station, in the Shapira and HaTikva neighborhoods, through busy streets. I did not encounter any display of racism. Nobody swore at me or threatened me. Infiltrators I spoke with told me about spitting and curse words; some said that glass bottles were hurled at them while they were riding their bicycle. Personally, I did not encounter any of this. Yet one thing is certain: The State of Levinsky is a powder keg, and I’m not at all sure that the Border Guard police patrolling the streets here now would be able to prevent the next flare-up.
Meanwhile, according to the statistics, during the week I lived as an infiltrator in Levinsky Park, another 203 fresh infiltrators arrived in Tel Aviv.