A man with a dark complexion, sporting what is known locally as a “Herzl” beard — named in honor of the Zionist founding father Theodore Herzl — was standing behind me in line at the café. He was bareheaded, so he was definitely not Charedi. Hipster was the obvious conclusion. But then an exchange with the waitress threw me. Upon hearing the contents of a particular sandwich, he asked, almost winsomely, “But what is tofu?”
Who on Earth — in Tel Aviv — the vegan capital of the world where the denizens basically sweat soy, doesn’t know what tofu is? Naturally, I joined his table to find out.
I figured he must have been an ex-Chassid or something. I could not have been more wrong. Zahi Abu Sinni is a Roman Catholic Arab from Nazareth, but if you ask him, he’ll tell you that, first of all, he’s a human, then an Arab of Lebanese descent, then a Palestinian who lives in the State of Israel. His religion doesn’t factor in. His sisters and father became much more devout when he lost his mother to cancer six years ago but the closest Abu Sinni’s gotten to matters of faith is a religious devotion to soccer.
Since he was a small boy, Abu Sinni played for semi-professional leagues and was on his way to soccer stardom but his experiences were marred by acute racism that saw him kicked off of both Jewish and Muslim Arab teams. He was spat on and told by a teammate, “Keep running, you piece of Arab scum.”
Today, he only plays soccer as a hobby.
Still, Abu Sinni remains uncannily optimistic. “I have no regrets. I move on. That is all we can do, no?” he said.
His answers are frequently punctuated with a rippling giggle and a thousand-watt smile, something he says he inherited from his father. “A lot of things worked out for me because of this smile,” he said.
A graduate of Israel’s prestigious Technion, Abu Sinni strongly believes that education is the key to solving much of the conflict that divides the country.
“To be something in this country, you have to study,” he said. “You can’t only fight with fire. Our weapon is to know, to read and to work to help society and [come up] with solutions.”
Never serious for more than a minute, Abu Sinni’s face split into a grin. “Lucky there are Arabs in this country because they unite the Jews together. I see the way you guys argue,” he said, laughing.
Despite a successful career in technical engineering, Abu Sinni dreams of opening a place with his brother — a jazz musician — that will be a safe space for people of all faiths to mix. While he hasn’t settled on how exactly to define it, it will be a place that will be full of “music, art, books and young people who want to get more knowledge.
“But it’s not going to be in Tel Aviv,” he quipped, adding that there are enough such places in Israel’s cultural capital. Instead, he’d like to build it in his hometown of Nazareth.
While he has many issues with the State of Israel, pointing especially to its definition as both Jewish and democratic — demarcations he insists cannot coexist, — it will nevertheless always be his home.
“Even though I have the tools to leave, I love this place,” he said. “I was born in this place and I will never leave.”