The Earth Reverberating

By Ramzy Nasrallah on November 12, 2014 at 1:15 pm
Tel Aviv beachfront
Tel Aviv at dawn. Mike's Place is one block behind the Sheraton hotel.

Sometimes things simply refuse to go as planned.

Ohio State’s game of the year in East Lansing happened to coincide with business travel I could not avoid. As a result I found myself in Tel Aviv last Saturday, where the Buckeyes and Spartans wouldn’t kick off until 3am Sunday morning. 

Since weekends in Israel are Friday and Saturday this meant Ohio State would not only start playing during the normally dormant, pre-waking hours of a workday - the game would also overlap with the start of Sunday business. Outside of spotty cell phone updates during stubbornly planned fall weddings (clenches fists in rage) I had not missed a Buckeye football game in its entirety since Michigan in 1996; also due to being overseas.

[Yeah. Michigan in 1996. I still hold myself partially responsible for what happened that day. Nope, never going to watch it.]

Tel Aviv isn’t Chicago and this wasn’t a weekend or a soccer game. Therefore, my hopes were slim of finding a bar anywhere in the Middle East willing to open its doors and create a graveyard shift that doesn’t normally exist to serve ex-pats like me for whom a relatively niche sport like college football matters too much. 

I wasn’t going down without at least trying, so I asked friends and acquaintances who had visited Tel Aviv to name a place that was fun, casual and catering to American sports tastes. It turned out to be a simple question; every single person responded with the same place: Mike’s Place. 

Sounded casual enough, so I googled it to get the address which was the very first result. However, my eyes were immediately yanked into the words for the entry beneath it.

That’s because second result was Mike’s Place suicide bombing.


Mike's Place suicide bombing
Photo: Tal Cohen

The attack happened during the normally dormant, pre-waking hours of a workday. 

It was well after midnight on Wednesday during the bar’s weekly, well-attended Tuesday night jam session. Gal Ganzman, one of the owners who also happened to be tending bar described his personal experience that fatal evening:

I see a flash to my left just outside the bar and hear a high-pitched pop, like a firecracker. That's it - no heat or wind or anything like that…I immediately understood that something was not right, but I didn't know it was a bombing.

Everything is quiet. No noise. No screaming. A few people are getting up from the ground with bloody faces. Bodies are scattered about on the ground not moving. The row of cars I am used to seeing outside the bar looks different, black. It becomes clear that a bomb has gone off.

Inside, no one is hurt, but no one is moving. I only remember making eye contact with one woman as I made my way to the back….on the table in front of her are a couple of drinks, a beer mug, and what might have been a liver. She looks at me, confused.

The bomb was detonated by a 22-year old British national named Asif Muhammad Hanif. He arrived at the bar with Omar Khan Sharif, a 27-year old collaborator also from Britain. Avi Tabib was working the door that evening and thought the two men looked suspicious, so he blocked them from entering the bar as they attempted to force their way inside.

Tabib shoved the men out of the entrance right as Hanif detonated the bomb, which he had attached to his belt on his back side, likely to avoid suspicion. The explosion badly injured the bouncer and also wounded Hanif’s collaborator in the process. Sharif’s bomb failed to explode and he was startled by the blast, so he discarded it and fled the scene. His body washed up on the beach two weeks later. 

Hanif’s bomb detonated at his waist, instantly decapitating his body and shooting his torso from the ribcage up skyward, slamming into the Mike’s Place sign above the entrance. 

The owners refused shutter a place where people escaped daily life for music and sports.

The blast killed Yanai Weiss - a guitarist and one of the spiritual leaders of those Tuesday night jam sessions that are still held at Mike’s Place today. Ran Baron, a bar regular and musician who had just finished recording a song that evening also died at the bar. Dominique Hass, an aspiring pastry chef who had just closed a deal to open a new cafe was bartending that night and died on the way to the hospital.

Sixty other patrons were injured. Had Sharif been able to enter the bar before detonating his bomb the casualties would have been significantly higher and the structural damage might have been catastrophic. As luck would have it, a film crew was at the bar that night filming a documentary and unexpectedly captured the entire attack.

Mike’s Place was still badly damaged, but Ganzman and his fellow owners refused to allow an act of terrorism to shutter a place where people escaped the rigors of daily life for music and sports. Their patrons relied on them; besides, succumbing to terrorism only helps empower it. 

So while mourning, they swiftly made the necessary repairs to the building, restaurant and bar. Mike’s Place triumphantly reopened only a few days after it was bombed, on May 6.

That was not an insignificant date in Israel. It’s Independence Day.


Ben Gurion airport
Ben Gurion airport border security detainment office.

Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to Mike’s Place to see the Buckeyes and Spartans. As it turned out I barely made it out of the airport.

Sometimes things simply refuse to go as planned.

Border security at Ben Gurion airport is understandably rigorous. Almost 45 minutes after arriving from Rome and standing in the Foreign Passports line it was finally my turn to see an agent. He was only visible from the shoulders up, sitting inside of a small windowed kiosk equipped with monitors only visible to him. 

He looked over my passport, asked me a few questions about my reasons for being in Israel and spent a couple of minutes examining those hidden computer screens. Then instead of handing me back my passport, he got up and exited the kiosk with it. A minute later he returned, empty-handed.

“You’re going to have to answer a few more questions,” he said, pointing behind me. “Go over there and you will be summoned.”

Over there was a roughly 40x20 waiting room equipped with a couple of beverage machines ($4 for a small bottle of water) and nothing else. One side of the room was occupied by people arriving from West Africa being screened for symptoms of the Ebola virus. The other side was everyone else who had apparently been told they, like me, needed to answer a few more questions.

There was no wireless and no electrical outlets. I turned on my phone and began catching up on Twitter and college football sites.

An hour later I was occupying the same chair. A few people had come and gone, but otherwise the only real action was a security guard occasionally lecturing other sequestered travelers for complaining about being detained. One family loudly pleaded it was about to miss a boarding a cruise ship.

Another hour later a woman came to the room and finally called my name. I popped up and followed her into a sequestered office. She had my passport on her desk and my name was already on her computer screen.

I sat down and she slid a piece of paper toward me. “Write down all of your telephone numbers and email addresses,” she said. “Write down your father’s name and his father’s name.”

Cool, I could definitely do that. If only all tests were this easy.

“You know, you have a *terrible* name in Israel.”

She asked me the same questions the agent in the kiosk had asked me earlier. Then she asked if there were any other phone numbers or email addresses I had failed to write on the paper. Then she asked me those same questions again, as if I hadn't just answered them.

I produced my business card, boarding passes, some work emails from my Israeli colleagues discussing my visit and anything else I figured could get me to Mike’s Place before the 3:30pm games reached halftime.

Our interview took about 15 minutes and she sent me back into the Ebola room, saying I would be summoned again shortly with a determination. About an hour later I caught sight of her leaving that office with her bag and her coat. She was going home.

It was now 5:30pm. I had been in Israel for two and a half hours, all in the airport. It was 10:30am in the States so I plugged my phone into one of the four batteries I travel with and began to track College Gameday from East Lansing (I was curious to see how accurate I was with predicting the script.)

An hour later I finally realized it might be a good idea to send some emails to my Israeli colleagues asking for some help. They apologized profusely and started dialing their phones with haste.

Two hours after that at 8:30pm a male agent emerged just as the female had several hours earlier and called my name. I popped up and followed him into a different office. He had my passport on his desk. I could not see his computer screen.

Once again, I was asked to write down all of my phone numbers and email addresses; my father’s name and his father’s name. I answered all of the questions about my occupation and the reasons for my visit, again, with a smile.

“Is there anything you aren’t telling me?” He asked the question with a thick Hebrew accent. “What would I find out about you if I looked you up on the Internet?”

That was the first question I couldn’t answer confidently. “Um, probably Twitter stuff, sports writing, and - “

“You’re a sports writer?” He asked. “What kind of sports?”

“Football,” I replied. “Um, I mean American football. American football. Not futbol. Well, I have written about soccer. But not usually. American college football.”

Then he cut right to the chase. “You know, Mr. Ramzy, you have a terrible name in Israel.” 

There had to be something lost in the translation as I don’t think for a second he was purposefully trying to be a dick. My last name is quite common in the Middle East - so common that it’s even shared by a man who heads a notorious terrorist organization. Hooray!

“I understand that,” I said, “but it’s a coincidence. I don’t know and am not related to anyone terrible.”

“Not at all?”

“Not at all.”

He seemed satisfied for few seconds. As with the female interrogator before, I had produced my boarding passes and everything needed to justify my visit - except my passport, which he already had - and figured I might be close to finally leaving the airport.

“So then,” he said. “Tell me what else I would find if I looked you up.”

It suddenly occurred to me what I had failed to grasp during this constant string of questions, and frankly I felt like a complete idiot for not having realized it earlier.

Warriors isn’t a benign word in the Middle East, a region that’s been at war with itself for thousands of years. Conflict is part of the fabric of society there, whereas in America we casually use war metaphors when talking about sports. We routinely talk about wars on drugs, poverty, Christmas, whatever. 

11w business card
Eleven Warriors: Not a jihadist organization.

They don’t do that there. War is bloody, endless, violent, tragic, perpetual reality in the Middle East. In using Israel's vast resources to check my history (unexciting) citizenship (only one) aliases (none) and affiliations it was now clear they had seen but probably not fully understood that while Eleven Warriors might sound like an emerging jihadist organization…um, it’s not.

“Eleven Warriors,” I blurted out to him, with direct eye contact.

“Yes, please tell me about this,” he said.

I described the company to him in full and gave him the URL to check out for himself. He asked for my Eleven Warriors business card, which I produced. After a few more questions he sent me back out to wait, but his tone had changed significantly from the beginning of the interview. It was more conciliatory and almost apologetic, and he acknowledged how much time I had spent being detained at border security. 

Despite feeling like I had been forgotten for most of the afternoon, he knew exactly how long I had been there to the minute. Not long after we finally discussed 11W, another agent emerged from the offices with my passport, an Israeli visa, my work business card and my boarding passes from the journey.

They returned every document I had given them in my defense, with one notable exception: They held onto my 11W business card.

I was now free to venture into Tel Aviv almost six and a half hours after first arriving. Minnesota thumping Iowa and following college football Twitter very likely salvaged my sanity last Saturday. No, I didn’t tell anyone what I was going through. That would have helped nobody stay calm.

My cab dropped me off at my hotel and I limped into my room while setting an alarm to wake up and watch the Big Ten's game of the year.

Which I eventually did on my phone with one eye open, from bed. Mike’s Place would have to wait another day.


If you head south on the boardwalk from the bar and cross the street toward the sea you'll find the bombed-out remains of the Dolphinarium discotheque on the beach. It was destroyed in 2001 during the second Intifada which also spanned the Mike's Place bombing. Unlike the Mike's Place bombers, the perpetrator of this attack was from the region.

The Hounslow mosque in West London was the British base for an international Sufi Muslim group named LightStudy. That New Age movement, which is led by a Syrian cleric named Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi is viewed as an important ally against radical Islamic groups in that it is opposed to violence of any kind. The Chinese, Russian and British governments favor Sufism as a means of fighting against Muslim extremism.

Mike's place memorial plaque
The plaque remembering the victims of 4/30/2003

Seven years before Mike’s Place was bombed in 1995, members of Al-Muhajiroun were permanently expelled from Hounslow for having radical views of Islam. If that group sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because FBI Agent Ken Williams famously noticed and reported suspicious activity involving Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons in Arizona in early 2001.

His report, which went largely ignored by his superiors until after 9/11 was subtitled Osama bin Laden and Al-Muhjiroun supporters attending civil aviation universities/colleges in Arizona. 

Al-Muhajiroun may have been kicked out of Hounslow, but it didn’t exactly leave either. Hanif was an active, vocal and popular member of LightStudy, yet British intelligence tied both him and Sharif to Al-Muhajiroun well prior to April 2003 and failed to stop them as they used British passports to legally enter Israel multiple times that month. 

His religious devotion and intentions, which served as central focus of his life, were duplicitous. Hanif’s worldview of Islam was being simultaneously shaped by an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. In death, his friends, family and neighbors were overcome with disbelief and grief. Conversely, Al-Muhajiroun celebrated him as a martyr for their cause.

The two men entered Israel for the final time on April 29th from the Gaza Strip and made their way north - with familiarity from previous, undisturbed visits - to the Tel Aviv promenade along the beach.


Mike's Place - 11/9/2014

Bombs smell like burning flesh and smoke. 

They ruthlessly ignite everything unfortunate enough to be within their reach without discrimination - walls, cars, people, concrete, everything. People whom the explosions fail to kill are instead treated to that unforgettable scent in their nostrils. That’s how the rest of us know what bombs smell like.

Bars smell like alcohol, sweat and hot food. The ambient sound of a crowded bar carries the scents of fresh and rancid fun from one end to the other. The air is thick with amusement and it lingers for days.

Bombs smell like death. Tonight, Mike’s Place smells like life. 

The bar faces the boardwalk that runs along the beach. It is the only building that shares a wall with the American Embassy, which you can probably imagine is one of the most fortified buildings in the world. It couldn't have been more than ten seconds inside the bar before I was able to pick up French and Arabic being spoken in addition to Hebrew and Scottish-accented English. 

Once you pass the memorial to the 2003 bombing victims and uniformed security you’re greeted with a second layer of glass that I initially assumed was for security; later I found out it was set up as a barrier for the cooler weather that’s coming. The first NFL games were starting as I entered, at 8pm local time. The volume was turned up for American national anthem being played at the Jaguars/Cowboys game in London.

Bombs smell like death. Tonight Mike’s Place smells like life.

There are only two rules at Mike's Place: Politics and prejudice aren’t tolerated. I took an open seat at the bar next to a guy who had just quickly ordered four Jager bombs for himself right as the 2-for-1 happy hour was ending. 

Taking his cue, I did the same and ordered a quadruple Bulleit, neat. The bartender informed me the drink would cost a mere 49 shekels and another patron at the bar immediately shouted, “yeah go Niners!”

I was still a bit wrecked from traveling, border security, waking up at 3am to watch the Buckeyes and a full day of work so I only stuck around for one half before cutting out - but it was excellent. I learned a few interesting things during that half of football: One, Israelis are almost uncomfortably acclimated to the constant threat of terrorism (a recent trend is deliberately taking selfies with incoming missiles approaching in the background) 

Two, terrorism cannot prevent people from escaping the rigors of daily life to enjoy sports and loud music. The entire peace-loving world was represented in Mike's Place, and both the mood and the vibe - on a school night - were absolutely vibrant. Man, I would have loved to see the Buckeyes light up the Spartans there. 

Alas, sometimes things simply refuse to go as planned. 

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