This article was originally publish in the Jewish Telegraph, published September 16, 2011. Text and photos provided by Lydia Aisenberg.
A walk in the dark with one of the gifted blind and partially sighted guides at the Holon Children’s Park Dialogue. in the Dark Center is a journey to places and situations either unknown or little thought about by sighted folks. After an hour of walking, talking through a very feely‐touchy experience one’s head is full of so many different thoughts, feelings, sensations all adding up to a powerfully deep appreciation for having the ability to see, hear, smell, touch and taste and together with that, a surge of admiration for the blind and how they tackle all the twists and turns of life, good and bad, in total darkness.
Coming out of the darkness, the youngest child in the 10‐person group (an 11‐year American girl) tripped over her own feet in the light, something she had managed not to do in the dark! Her mother put out a hand to steady her and said what so many of us parents/grandparents always blurt out in such situations, the ever‐on the‐
tip of the tongue “watch where you’re going, silly.” Having just spent an hour successfully navigating passageways, steps and even getting on and off an imaginary boat and purchasing a bag of goodies at the bar in the dark, the mother’s comment cracked through the air like a circus trainers whip.
The child and her mother both gave a short nervous laugh and before moving on, ma gave her daughter a really tight hug. Given the situation and place we were in, the hug was translated by this writer as a silent statement of thank goodness you were born with all your faculties you clumsy twit!
Foreboding, frightening and also fascinating – knowing the inability to see anything is only a temporary thing of course – the voice and occasional helping hand of guide Meir Mattityau stops one getting into a panic but not, unfortunately, the use of some rather colourful language at times when a wall, tree trunk or whatever suddenly connects with the end of one’s nose or someone’s cane pokes you and not an empty space the person behind thought was in front of them. If they were embarrassed and red in the face I wouldn’t know just heard a muttered apology.
Meir does not physically show himself to those temporarily entering his world of blackness and as bleak as one might think that world would be, he quickly begins to draw a picture of the lighter side of the dark world within which he lives and we are trying to navigate – the blind leading the blind so to speak.
What one does effortlessly in the light becomes a more than difficult task, confidence suddenly replaced with apprehensions, hesitations and because we are only at the beginning of a journey hopefully never to be truly travelled, so dependent on another to move forward, avoid falling, crashing into something and above all, to start listening to all the sounds we don’t normally give much – if any – conscious attention to.
Meir’s voice is a shining light in the darkness. Soothing, encouraging, warning, guiding to the left, the right as one makes one’s way through the tunnel of darkness. Concrete flooring is suddenly replaced by wood, such a totally different sound made by the tapping of the canes we’ve all been given at the beginning. The wood is replaced by gravel, then grass as the sounds of birds, animals are heard. Quietly in the beginning but as one progresses, louder – and then – in this writer’s case anyway – a small collision with a tree and leafy branch.
Immediately drawing a deep breath and saying: “Darn it, I didn’t see that.” Of course you didn’t dummy, you are with eyes wide open in the pitch blackness of another world. “We are going for a boat ride,” announces Meir, the humour in his voice not lost to one’s now overly attentive ears. “Be careful of the steps going down, hold on to the banister, gently sit on the bench and scoot along to the end.” Easy – if you can find the banister to start with that is!
On the boat, Meir’s humour comes out full force. You can sing if you want he says as the ‘boat’ rocks gently and fine spray falls from above. Silence, nobody feels like singing it would seem, too busy hanging on hoping not to fall overboard. Trust the British to kick in when there’s a difficult situation to be handled. “Row, row, row the boat,” two Israeli‐Brits begin to sing although personally thought afterwards that ‘Michael, row the boat ashore’ would have been more appropriate for those who wanted to get back on to familiar land – the light at the end of the Holon tunnel of darkness.
At one point, having survived the boat outing, we enter a market place. Strong smells, lots of chatter and clatter. Feeling one’s way along the wall, all of a sudden one’s hand ends up wrapped around a rather large soft piece of fruit. Within a few minutes Meir the guide, who tells absolutely nothing about himself, calls every one of the ten by their names. He knows that an American student is very tall and picks up on so many facts about his invisible guests bringing one to think that he is partially sighted and wearing night vision goggles.
The last stage of the Dialogue in the Dark is ordering something at the bar in the dark and being talked toward a table and benches. The crackle of a bag of Bamba and hiss as a bottle of fizzy drink is opened – after the worried customer wondering whether they had been had with the change they cannot see – Meir begins to tell about himself.
Have you thought about how I look or how old I am he asks? Personally I thought he was of medium height, stocky with black curly hair and in his late 20s, all of which built up according to his voice of course. He explains he is 41 years‐old, had been born prematurely and totally blind from birth, the eldest of four and lives in Jerusalem. He had studied for two years in the United States, lives alone and travels to work in Holon by bus.
He loves his work and described the Dialogue in the Dark center as “my favourite playground.” The children asked what he sees when he dreams, if it bothers him if people offer assistance when crossing the road for instance. How did he figure out how to colour coordinate his clothing and how about reading, writing and … none of them asked about arithmetic!
We discover there’s a special piece of equipment that can ‘read’ colours, that there are ‘talking computers’ and that Braille is written phonetically and so he can read in English, French and Hebrew. The chat in the café is over as is the visit to the dark side of the seeing world. Little by little one comes out of the darkness into semi‐darkness and then into the light. Meir is still talking and says he will come and say goodbye.
Out steps a tall, slim gentleman with thinning black hair, eyes tightly shut and a big grin on his face. “Do I disappoint you?” he asks laughing. Dialogue in the Dark is not a show, not an exhibition but an amazing experience because one literally sees nothing whilst relying on the other four senses. Reintroduction to sight, light and ceasing to shuffle with hands outstretched to the unknown, is a huge relief and gratification swamps one from head to toe.
Leaving the pointed sphinx like building and out in the open air, immediately to a bridge over an artificial lake where excited children and adults paddle their boats on the placid waters, quick to pick up on someone under the bridge whose boat has been bumped by another:
“Hey, watch where you are going, stupid.”