November 22, 2019

The Transplant From Zimbabwe Who Made Israel His Home

Tristan Sauter was still a teenager when he moved to Israel. As a non-Jew, it was an unlikely place for a white man raised in Zimbabwe and Malawi to end up. Israel was, Sauter said, “one huge culture shock.” 

However, he decided to move to Israel with his Jewish boyfriend (now husband), Jonathan, whom he met in South Africa. Today, the couple runs a hair salon popular with Tel Aviv’s English-speaking community.

But things weren’t always so easy. Shortly after arriving in Israel, Sauter found himself at a packed bus stop. He allowed all the women and elderly to get on the bus before him, only to have the bus driver screech off at full speed, leaving him standing on the curb.

However, despite that humiliation, Israel was also the first place where Sauter could live publicly as a gay man, even though he describes himself as conservative and uncomfortable with public displays of affection. He attributes this to the fact that homosexuality is illegal in Zimbabwe and Malawi. 

Sauter was born in Zimbabwe in 1981, amid major unrest. The threat of another civil war loomed as guerrilla groups launched rebellions. Fearing for its safety, Sauter’s family moved to Blantyre, Malawi, when Sauter was 2 years old. Although the school he attended had black and white students, he said he always was aware of his “white privilege.” “It’s just easier as a white person,” he said, noting that he has royal blood. His paternal grandfather was Swiss and he shares an aunt with Princess Charlene of Monaco, a fellow Zimbabwean.

 “I felt so much safer [in Israel] than I ever did in Africa.” — Tristan Sauter 

Sauter described life in Blantyre as “peaceful and chilled” but laced with a “colonial air,” and he never felt safe there. When he was 14, he woke in the night to banging at his window. He saw a dark face and screamed to his mother, who came running in with a gun. She asked the man what the hell he thought he was doing. Sauter laughed as he recalls the intruder’s response. “He said, ‘I’m trying to break in, ma’am.’ ” On another occasion, 18 people tried to break into the house at the same time. “I never slept,” Sauter said. “I was always paranoid. I felt so much safer [in Israel] than I ever did in Africa.” 

He did, however, arrive in Israel at the beginning of the Second Intifada, when there was a slew of café and bus bombings. He said he recalls jumping off so many buses “because I couldn’t tell the difference between Israelis and terrorists.” 

Shortly after arriving, he started working for a celebrity hairdresser in Tel Aviv. One day, he received a call to not come in. His boss had fled the country because the mafia was after him. Sauter then joined Jonathan at his salon and has worked there ever since.

After almost two decades, Sauter finally received Israeli citizenship three months ago.  Still, he said, “I’m not Israeli enough.”

But Israel is definitely his home. The last time he was in Malawi was three years ago, to visit his brother who was gravely ill with tetanus. Thankfully, his brother survived, but the visit gave Sauter pause for thought.

“I often have that feeling about why am I so far from my family,” he said. “But I could never go back to living life in Africa. It’s a very laid-back lifestyle, which is great, but the future is bleak there.”