Through Tension and Tea, Jerusalem Cafes Still Thrive ; Canadian-Born Painter Azriel Yair Cohen Captures the Charm and Normalcy of the City's Cafe Culture, despite an Underlying Threat of Terrorism

Article excerpt

The woman eyes the table toward which her friend motioned. "Not that one," she shakes her head. "Too close to the door."

The door, that is, through which a suicide bomber could come at any moment. Instead, they settle into a sunny spot two tables away - and order breakfast as if they hadn't a care in the world.

It is this mix of fear and familiarity, the desire to let life go on as usual despite the backdrop of bloodshed, that breathes a realistic and sometimes eerie air into the paintings of Azriel Yair Cohen.

The Canadian-born artist's series of paintings called "Jerusalem Cafes," itself on exhibit in one of the city's favorite and somewhat furtive cafes, captures something rarely noticeable to the world at large: images of what is charming, and almost normal, about life in Jerusalem.

Of course, it is hard for some here to say what "normal" is anymore: Israelis went into the Passover holiday with headlines warning that the country's security services had more than 60 credible reports of imminent terror attacks. And many people try to avoid crowded places, public transportation, and anything that is likely to become the target of a suicide bombing - cafes foremost among them.

Yet it is precisely the people who continue to frequent the city's cafes, despite the threat of terrorism, who inspired Mr. Cohen's series. The resulting watercolors are intriguing slices of life, which seem to defy the typical picture of a Middle East that lives on fear and loathing alone.

Cafe culture

In many Western countries, the social glue of business and pleasure often involves an invitation to go out "for a drink." In Israel, where alcohol consumption is comparatively low, social life tends to revolve around coffee or tea, often had in an airy or outdoor cafe.

But the country's cafe culture has been damaged by what Israelis roundly refer to as the matsav, or situation, a catch-all for the violence that has defined Israeli-Palestinian relations since the peace process collapsed 3-1/2-years ago. Now the ebb and flow of the matsav often determines whether people go out at all.

"It's completely about the matsav," Cohen says of his paintings, over a glass of milky almond tea at Tmol Shilshom, the cafe hosting the exhibit.

A tall, lanky man in his late 30s, Cohen wears a stretched-out beret pulled over his longish curly hair. A smudge of black coal from his last drawing session stretches across the bridge of his nose. "The paintings are an affirmation that even in for what some people is a war zone, we find some sanity amid the insanity," he says. "I wanted to look at the normal things that still go on."

For Cohen, who spent much of his adult life working in art and spiritual education in the US, Israel, and India, looking for the more mundane aspects of life here was a way of figuring out whether he could live here again.

He left during a seemingly ceaseless cycle of violence in 2002, and then came back a year later, in the summer of 2003.

"When I left here, there were bombings every day. This time, I had some inkling that I had a choice of how to be. I could either be a victim of the situation, or I could take my mind and shift it - so I took it upon myself to paint everything aesthetically," he explains. "I'm looking for the beauty here."

Renoir, too, once said that he didn't see the point of painting something if it didn't bring pretty things into the world; He thought of ripe fruit when painting women's faces. But then, Renoir's subjects were probably not living under the more or less constant threat of violence. The fact that Cohen's subjects often are shows, sometimes in their faces - in the demeanor of a tense couple with one eye on the door, or in the lack of faces in Cohen's many half-empty cafes.

While some paintings have two or three friends engrossed in conversation, others evince a certain loneliness, relaying the atmosphere of a slow, sad night for the cafe staff. …

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