Nostalgia Sunday – Gulf War Memories

I am dubiously nostalgic, at best, for the First Gulf War. Nonetheless, it’s 20th anniversary time and so the event must be noted. It was not a particularly good time in my life. Unlike many of my peers, whose romantic lives were fueled by the “live for the moment” thrill engendered in the weeks leading up to the war and the war itself, I was dealing with 1. a broken heart, 2. a change in careers, and 3. remodeling my apartment.

They say that war is hell but I say renovations are. Two weeks before the January 15th deadline set by the US, my pal Motti-the-shiputznik (shiputzim is the local term for renovations) convinced me that now was the perfect time to put in that new toilet, sink and bathtub. “But there’s going to be a war,” I protested weakly. “There’s not going to be a war,” he countered. “And even if there is a war, it’ll be over in what? Four or five days, maximum!” Motti then went on to convince me that if I was already doing the bathroom, I should do the kitchen too. And probably the living room.

Needless to say, two days before the deadline, all of Motti’s Arab workers were blocked from entering Israel and the project stalled. And so, dear reader, I spent the Gulf War living as if a SCUD missile had hit my now floorless, wall-less, toilet-less apartment.

In those days I was in another profession, that of theater lighting design. And in a no less surreal situation, due to the bottom falling out of the theater market (the war came early there), I had taken on whatever work I could get: a dinner theater version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, complete with an Eddie corpse sculpted from margarine out of which guests were supposed to dish their dinner. Just what the world needed at that moment. The project was marred not only by a lack of taste but also directorial sanity and — truth be told — electrical safety.

The venue was an old Turkish nightclub in Jaffa whose roof was made of plywood which meant we couldn’t hang lamps. In any case, the electrical infrastructure was so ancient, it couldn’t power more than a few, yet the director continued to make outrageous demands. The January 15th deadline was closing in. What was I doing there?

“Don’t tell anyone,” the head electrician whispered in my ear, “but I’ve bought tickets for England and my wife and I are flying out tomorrow. I am not going to be here when this war starts.”

“I think I have to go home and seal a room,” I told the director when she made another one of many unfeasible requests that would require me to stay extra hours. “You know, because the war.” “Oh yeah…” she said dreamily. “My mother said she would do that for me.” Well. You don’t say that to a motherless child. I didn’t say anything but it was at that moment I decided to get the hell out of that production, away from theater people and theater in general.

Fortunately, sometime around January 13th or 14th, someone on the production team put the project on hold and everyone went out to dance at the “End of the World” parties that were happening all over Tel Aviv. I went back to my temporary digs at a friend’s apartment and started the long-overdue task of sealing up the room, as we had been instructed, with cross-hatched tape on all the windows so that they wouldn’t cut us when they shattered, plastic sheeting over all the windows and doors and a bucket half-filled with water and a wet rag for the door frame — all to prevent the poison gas that was surely heading our way from seeping in.

And of course, into the sealed room went the gas masks, symbol of a new kind of war we were about to experience: the low-profile war. Meaning, Israel was going to sit back and not take action.

According to the Home Front Command’s history, “Israel maintained a low profile from the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, and did not participate in the political contacts between Iraq and the U.S.A. Despite this ‘low profile’ policy, the IDF, through HAGA (the Civil Defense), took a number of steps… regarding the home front:
“1. Handing out personal protection kits to all residents in Israel for protection against unconventional weapons.
2. Wide-ranging use of the media to disseminate information and directions on how to use he masks and how to behave during an alert.
3. Publicizing directions for preparing a sealed and secure room in every home and in public places, and instructions to avoid large gatherings.
4. Cooperation between medical and rescue organizations in the rear.”

So, we had sealed rooms and our gas masks in handy-dandy carrying cases. But we weren’t allowed to open the boxes yet. And when we were given the go-ahead, here is what we found:
1. A gas mask
2. A canister filter, to be affixed onto the end of the mask
3. A packet of talcum powder (in case of mustard gas)
4. A packet of gauze (for the above)
5. A syringe for the self-injection of Atropine

That last one was the most intriguing to a lot of people. What was Atropine? What were the effects? Could it get you high?

Friend or foe? The Atropine syringe

Finally, the first SCUDs fell. Needless to say, at first, many people were so convinced that they had been gassed, they injected themselves with Atropine and had to be hospitalized. In our neighborhood however, a strange thing happened on the first morning after the second round of shelling. The old HAGA guys came around with a megaphone and told everyone to get out of the sealed room and into the local bomb shelter.

The local bomb shelter? Where the hell was that? I’d been so busy dealing with plaster, plastic and tape, I’d never considered the conventional warfare option.

Neither had anyone else, it seemed, as the neighbors — mostly young hipsters in sweats, and elderly folks, (also in sweatsuits or PJs but with the addition of bathrobes) — began trailing out of their buildings, down the street and over to the local elementary school. We — me, my friend, her boyfriend and his dog — sat down along with everybody else on the floor in the musty bomb shelter with our hastily thrown-together knapsack of granola, sweatshirts, flashlight — and of course gas masks.

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Nostalgia Sunday – Asimonim

israel_telephone_token_backNostalgia is defined as “longing for something past” and the asimon, or Israeli telephone token, was a beautiful object for which I’m quite nostalgic. Not only did asimonim have a practical function — to make calls from public phones — they were attractively decorated with the image of a phone dial and had a hole in the middle, so you could string them on a leather thong to wear around your neck. Or, as I did, impaled on a large safety pin and hooked onto a belt loop. All very punk.

And here’s something I’m not at all nostalgic for: scrounging around desperately for an asimon, either because you miscalculated the length of your call, or — in most cases — because the public phone decided to eat your last precious token. This after having waited in line for 45 minutes to make the call.


I thought perhaps it was just me imagining conspiracy theories but it turns out that there actually was a national shortage of telephone tokens! This was between 1973 and the post-Yom Kippur War era, when asimon consumption shot way up, and 1981, when the Ministry of Communications found a way to manufacture asimonim locally instead of farming out the work to our friends at Vereinigte Deutsche Metallwerke AG (VDM). (Rumor had long had it that the arrangement with VDM was part of a reparations deal closed between the Israeli and German governments. Now, there’s a conspiracy theory to mull over).

In any case, by the time 1984 rolled around and the Ministry of Communications privatized Bezeq, there were asimonim aplenty and the black market in phone tokens (yes, there was one) had all but shut down. On the other hand, there was a wave of phone box break-ins. To stop the madness, Bezeq introduced the phone card in 1990, and again, war gave the new technology an unexpected boost in 1991 when the first Gulf War created new demand for international phone calls — mostly placed by those of us in sealed rooms trying to find out from relatives and friends abroad what CNN was reporting and which way the SCUDS were heading.


According to an excellent online article (in Hebrew) by Moshe Lipner, “Israel’s Telephone Tokens“, at their peak, there were 13,000 token telephone boxes around Israel. By 1999, these had been replaced by 22,000 Telecard phone boxes. These can still be found, as can phone cards, but their presence has declined considerably with the massive public switchover to cell phone technology — and who can blame the public for wresting itself out from under Bezeq’s monolithic thumb?

Meanwhile the modest little asimon has become a collector’s item on Ebay and an objet d’art. Given my penchant for wearing asimonim, I think I may need to get a pair of these:


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