By Mark Lavie
Inspired by Walter Kirn’s self-interview http://nyti.ms/OFpGAD
“What are you doing here at this ridiculous hour?” croaked the author, opening the door in a frayed, faded purple bathrobe, white stubble on his chin and wild hair flying every which way.
I thought 10:30 in the morning was a pretty reasonable time for an interview about his new book, “Broken Spring.” Yeah, right.
Groggily, Mark Lavie gestured with his head that I should sit down at the kitchen table and shut up. I did. Both.
I know he’s an Orthodox Jew, which means he gets up at the crack of dawn every day to go to synagogue. You would have thought that was the way he starts his day.
“Whatever gave you that idea,” he grunted as he shuffled toward the shower in the back of the house.
Fifteen minutes later, he emerged, wet hair slicked down on his scalp, but at least wearing some clothes. Black jeans, a work shirt, carpet slippers. Looking less like his sixty-six years than he did just a few minutes ago.
But it wasn’t all clear yet. I started asking why he wrote “Broken Spring,” but I got just two words out of my mouth when he held up a large, meaty hand in a clear “keep quiet” signal.
He slouched across the kitchen to the coffee machine. He poured himself a large cup, extracted a long-handled spoon from the dishrack, put a little sugar in the cup, stirred it, rinsed the spoon under the faucet and put it back in the dishrack. That’s a habit from Cairo, it turns out. Since he drinks a lot of coffee, it saves washing every spoon in the house twice a day.
Eyeing me with what appeared to be suspicion and hostility, he sat down at the table and chugged a long swig of coffee.
Slowly but steadily, the features softened, the scowl receded and the eyes cleared. Good thing, too. I was getting worried.
So how does this work around here, I asked.
“I’ve always been a night owl,” Lavie started out. “For the last ten years I was at AP in Jerusalem, I was the print night editor and AP Radio correspondent. I’d go back to bed after morning services, get up around 11, log in for radio in my backyard studio around noon—which works, because that’s 5 a.m. in Washington, in the middle of morning drive time—file a few radio spots, check my email and sports scores, go up to the house, have some lunch and get ready for work.”
The night editor works from 4 p.m. to midnight in the Jerusalem bureau, about a 50-minute drive from Lavie’s home in Rehovot, south of Tel Aviv. He’d get home around 1 a.m., spend some quality time with his wife and call it a day. Or night.
“Lucky for me, she’s also a night owl, or this wouldn’t work,” he admitted.
Moving to Cairo in mid-2011, he was also the night editor and radio correspondent on the AP Mideast regional desk, so he kept the same schedule.
“Everybody knows not to call me before 11 a.m.,” he said pointedly. “Everybody but you.”
I ventured a question about how it was in Cairo. That brought the first smile of the day.
“It was like graduate school in political science,” he said. “Every day brought a new lesson. I’ve been living in Israel for more than 40 years, and traveled around the region doing news reporting. I thought I knew the Mideast, but I was wrong. Cairo—Egypt—is the Mideast, not Israel.”
Is that why you wrote “Broken Spring”?
“That’s one of the reasons. It became pretty clear pretty quickly that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t have a clue about how things work there. Neither did most of the Western world. I started writing to explain why Arab Spring went wrong, and why everything the West did turned to … well, let’s just say that when it comes to the Mideast, the West has the reverse Midas touch.”
What about the other elements of the book?
“One thing I wanted to get across was the character of the people. By and large, Egyptians are quiet, calm, friendly and helpful. There’s always a danger that a reporter who lives in a foreign country will ‘go native,’ meaning he’ll identify with the people too much. I admit that I ‘went native,’ because I like the people. We here in Israel have a lot to learn from them, the way they treat each other with respect, despite their very real difficulties, especially poverty.”
Unless you’re a woman, though.
“That’s for sure. Women face constant, routine harassment and even sexual assault in Cairo. I wrote two chapters about that issue, one of them through the eyes of my wife, who came to visit for a week.”
What was it like to live there as an Orthodox Jewish Israeli-American?
“I kept the Israeli thing quiet and played American outside, but everyone at the office, and that means lots of Egyptians, knew that I’m an Israeli. There was never a problem. It led me to realize that hatred of Israel there is nothing personal, if you can imagine that.
“Being Jewish gave me some insight into the plight of the Jewish community in Egypt, and that was heartbreaking. I wrote about how the community is dying out, how beautiful synagogues are abandoned, how the ancient cemetery is overrun with squatters and sewage. Jews played a major role in Egypt for centuries, but Nasser expelled most of them in the 1950s, and the few who are left are aging and disappearing.”
By now he’d drained the large coffee cup. He headed back across the kitchen for a refill, his step rather springy, compared to the first time. If I ever dare try to interview Mark Lavie again, I’ll time it better. Noon. 3 p.m.