Tag Archives: North Africa

Tribute to Old Man and the Sea

7 May

My father, Joseph Labi, 88, always loved the sea.  As a child in Benghazi, Libya, he frequented the seaport and watched boats sail in and out of the Italian, Fascist-controlled harbor.

Joseph Labi today

Joseph Labi today

Many years later, in Israel, I recall my father taking me to the sea in Bat-Yam, our hometown outside Tel-Aviv.  We waded into the blue water until our toes could no longer touch the sand below. Then we floated and awaited for the waves to roll in from the deep.  We body-surfed the waves, our arms swinging like windmills to catch the cresting wave, carried to shore, and back again, and back again.

Joseph and wife Yvonne today

Joseph and wife Yvonne today

It is fitting, then, that last week the Holocaust Memorial documentarian chose to film my father with the sea behind him as a backdrop.  I look at my father and I can’t believe his age, nor mine — time did fly.

Joseph Labi at 15 in Italian village

Joseph Labi at 15 in Italian village

It was not until 1968, shortly after my Bar Mitzvah that I fully learned of my father’s horrific experience at the hands of the Nazis.  I was in the Israeli-equivalent of the Boy Scouts and I was asked to volunteer my father to speak of his ordeal in front of the “troops.”  It was a hot summer evening.  My father, dressed fashionably as he always did, fanned his face with a folded handkerchief.  I sat speechless long after he’d finished talking.  The images didn’t add up.  How was this stong, muscular, handsome man who stood before me was tortured to near nothingness by the Nazi machine?

Two years before, in 1966, and some twenty years after the end of WWII, my father, mother, sister and I visited a remote village in the Italian mountain range near Reggio Emilia.  “This is where I spent my childhood as an orphan,” he said.  Here in the village, Castelnovo Ne Monti, my father was interned by the Fascists and Nazis for two years.  Walking with him then in the picturesque cobblestone streets shrouded by mountain mist, I couldn’t imagine what he’d endured as a 15 year-old boy before the Nazis put him on a train to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.

Joseph with Isael's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Joseph with Isael’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu

That same night he and I sat at the Italian village outdoor cafe and watched on a grainy black-and-white TV the 1966 soccer World Cup final game between England and Germany.  While the Italian crowd rooted for their Germans war-allies, my father and I jumped for joy when England won the game and took the cup. That night my father couldn’t be happier, a small revenge of sorts.

Years passed.  He sometimes spoke of his experience at Bergen-Belsen, of his hunger, of his loneliness, of his humiliation, and his desire to live.  After liberation by the Americans, alone, he wandered the bombed-out cities

Joseph, at far left, with Special Combat Forces

Joseph, at far left, honored by Special Combat Forces

of Europe, finally returning to his port city of Benghazi, and the sea.  But it was no longer his home.  Almost everyone he’d known had scattered. He made it to Egypt with a childhood buddy, and from there, dressed as a British Jewish Brigade soldier he was smuggled into British-controlled Palestine.  For two years at a kibbutz he learned to tend to crops, milk the cows; learned to shoot a rifle, learned to read and write Hebrew before being drafted as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence.

Joseph honored by his family at Holocaust Memorial Stage

Joseph honored by his family at Holocaust Memorial Stage

The rest is history.  The number of Holocaust survivors is diminishing worldwide.  Soon there will be no one left to give first-hand testimony.  This week my father was honored as one of six survivors to light the torch at the Holocaust Memorial Services in Jerusalem.  He met with Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, finally awarded a stage on which to tell his story.  He owes thanks to his son-in-law Israel who’d campaigned for him for years, and to his grandson Daniel.  My younger daughters, Maya and Romy, 17, honored their grandfather by heading an Israeli delegation to Bergen-Belsen.  There they found his name recorded in the Nazi archives, including the date the train arrived at the camp.

Playing with the latest addition, his great-granddaughter

Playing with the latest addition, his great-granddaughter

My older daughters in America, Michelle and Vanessa, are proud of him, sharing his story with many of their friends of their generation.

The ceremony at Yad Va’Shem is over.  The cameras stopped.  The phone calls to my father from reporters and news crews stopped.  But my father hasn’t.  He will soon put on his soft walking shoes and head to the sea.  There he will stand on the cliff and look into the water, watch the waves roll in.  An old man and his sea.

 

Below there’s a link to my father’s video testimony.

http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/remembrance/2016/labi.asp


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandn

 

 

Kissed by a Fascist Dictator

16 Jan

The Arabs put the final touches of whitewash paint on the walls of their beloved city, Benghazi. Trash was removed from the streets.  Boardwalk cafes and shops glimmered under the Mediterranean sun of this North African nation of Libya.  Flags blew in the breeze.

Benito Mussolini in Benghazi

Benito Mussolini in Benghazi

Schools let out their children and had them stand in a single file from the airport to the town center.

Shopkeepers wiped clean their storefront windows in anticipation.  The year is 1937, and it’s not every day that IL DUCE (The Leader)  comes from Italy to witness his Fascist empire.  Upon landing, Benito Mussolini was escorted with fanfare through the streets of Benghazi.  My grandfather, Joseph Duani, much like other Jews in Benghazi, welcomed the dictator.  Wasn’t Italy and its Roman past the cradle of civilization?  Wasn’t Italy the nation that fostered music, art and commerce with flair? Joseph looked up to the Italians; they represented all that was noble and enlightened, or so he believed then.

My mother (with my father) in London, 1954

My mother (with my father) in London, 1954 (Click on Photo for a larger view)

He and his fellow business friends took pride in learning Italian, in sending their children years later to Italian-run schools in Benghazi.  Joseph wore the latest Italian suits and neckties and ordered Italian-made shoes using his Italian-made Olivetti typewriter.  Joseph Duani in his youth, the ultimate bad boy, tooled around town with his Italian-made 1935 Benelli motorcycle.  He had learned to correspond with Italian merchants in Napoli and Rome, to import fabrics and shoes for his Benghazi shop near the seaport.  Learning of Mussolini’s state visit, he put on his best suit, held his firstborn daughter Yvonne (my mother) in his arms, and rushed to the growing-by-the-minute procession to greet The Leader.

Mussolini entered Benghazi in a motorcade to the cheers of the crowds.  Arabs rode their camels. Young men displayed their riding

Benelli Italian-made motorcycle my grandfather owned

Benelli Italian-made motorcycle my grandfather owned

skills on horseback.  And like any politician, Mussolini mixed with the crowd, nodded his approval, waved, then stopped in front of my grandfather.  My mother, two months old, squirmed in her father’s arms.

Benito Mussolini stood on his toes–he was short and my grandfather was tall–and kissed my mother on the cheek.  The kiss is something my grandfather would recall years later.  It did not do him or his Jewish friends any favors.  In time the Fascists rolled into town and burned all their shops to the ground.  Collaborating with the Nazis, they sent 2500 Jews into labor camps in the Libyan desert, 600 died.  Years later Mussolini met his violent end, lynched by an angry Italian mob at the end of WWII.

Benito Mussolini's "sweetheart" today, near 80

My mother Yvonne Labi, today, near 80

As a child growing up, my father and mother spoke Italian to keep things from me.  I owe Mussolini

nothing other than introducing my family to all-things-beautiful that in later years would be termed La Dolce Vita: a sense of style, and a passion for living.  My mother celebrates her birthday this week, almost 80.  What the heck, Mom, I’ll kiss you on the cheek.  The other cheek.

Happy Birthday!

Below is a rare film footage of Benito Mussolini’s visit to Libya in 1937.

—————————————————————————————————————

Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/Maurice-Labi/e/B00A9H4XEI

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greek Fish Out of Water

20 Sep

I’m sitting at a nice outdoor restaurant in Galilee.  Tired of ordering the old favorites: grilled chicken, hummus, salads, I ask the waiter “What’s your Catch of the Day?”  The waiter excuses himself only to return a moment later with his manager.  The manager leans forward and explains the options available.  There’s salt-water fish from man-made fisheries; there’s fish from man-made fresh-water pools and there’s “fresh” fish flown in.

I look up the waiter.  The Land of Israel is known for miracles, but flying fish is a bit much.  So I ask.  Turns out, Israel has exhausted most of its fish along the coastline.  Fresh fish are pulled out of the Mediterranean near Cyprus and Greece; they’re packed in ice, delivered to an airplane, and 24 hours later, the Greek-speaking fish is on my plate.

I squeeze lemon juice on the grilled fish I ordered and remind myself to find out why I can’t have an “Israeli” fish.  The short answer is that there is no short answer.

Map of Mediterranean Sea

Map of Mediterranean Sea

The Mediterranean is dying.  Look at the map and you realize it’s an enclosed body of water.  The narrow Straits of Gibraltar in the south of Spain is the only outlet into the Atlantic.  As a teenager I sailed on a passenger ship from New York to Israel, through the Mediterranean.  The ship sailed along the coast of North Africa. From the upper deck my sister and I could spot hundreds of dolphins escorting the ship, jumping in and out of the water playfully.

That was then.  1971.

In the last 15 years alone the amount of fish along Israel’s coast has dropped by almost half.  Blame it on many factors. Unlike other countries that ban fishermen from fishing during the breeding season (4 months), Israel’s fishing policy allows fishermen to fish year-round.  This means that tiny fish are caught up in nets; they don’t have a chance to mature and are thrown away.  Over time, this leads to fewer and fewer fish in the sea.

Trolling is the next bad boy.  You’ve seen documentaries on how big fishing vessels lower giant nets to the bottom of the sea.  The boats suck up everything in sight; they tear up rocks, coral and reefs.  They destroy all in their path. Many of the fish caught are not commercial grade; they’re part of the food chain, but they’re killed in the process.

fish trolling boats

fish trolling boats

The Japanese, and their insatiable appetite for bluefin tuna, have signed lucrative fishing contracts with Mediterranean countries. They catch boatloads of tuna, often illegally, and ship them to Tokyo.  Sony or Honda executives might step out to lunch with their buddies and not know or care that their sushi has emptied the Mediterranean.

And let’s not forget the Egyptians.  Strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to go down in history like an Egyptian Pharoah.  So he built the massive Aswan Dam on the River Nile with the help of the Soviets in the 1960s.  The Dam was a great success.  The Nile no longer flooded.  Water irrigated the fields regularly and evenly.  The dam generated electricity for the Egyptian masses.

But damn it, the dam is killing the Mediterranean.  Sediments and silt that flow from the highlands of Ethiopia and down to the Nile Delta never make it to sea.  The stuff gets trapped behind the dam’s concrete walls.  The fish, dependent on the sediments as food, sink to the bottom, starving.

Tuna at sea

Tuna at sea

We’re not done with Egypt.  The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, is an engineering marvel.  Ships from the Far East and India no longer had to sail around the African continent to get to Europe.  They went through the Suez Canal – the ultimate short cut.

But the short cut led to long-term damage.  Fish from the warmer Indian Ocean, with spicy hot curry in their tails, started to swim north.  They swam through the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.

War.  The Indian fish are predatory; they killed the mild, let’s-have-fun Mediterranean fish.

Before long, the Indians took over the waters without paying rent.

And they brought with them a whole bunch of illegal immigrants: millions of jelly fish.

Jelly fish gravitate to warm waters.  Yearly, they clog up electrical power plants along Israel’s coast.  They come near unsuspecting swimmers and release their venom.  The sting burns like hell.  And when they’re done with humans, they go after fish eggs, further lowering their numbers.grilled fish

It seems fish in the Mediterranean can’t catch a break.  Worse, everybody wants to catch them.

I’m done with my dinner.  The waiter comes to my table again, looks at the fish bones on my plate.  He asks, “Do you want desert?”

‘Yes,” I say, thinking my Greek fish should have a companion.  “How about a glass of ouzo?”

———————————————————————————————————————————————-

Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=mauricelabi

or at BN.com

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/maurice-labi?store=allproducts&keyword=maurice+labi