I met Noa through Couchsurfing in October 2010 in Jerusalem, where she and her two flatmates hosted me in their apartment for several days.
Since then Noa has moved to Tel Aviv, and I’ve seen her again on a couple occasions — a random encounter on a Tel Aviv sidewalk in 2013, and then again in 2015, when she hosted me the night of a rally commemorating the 20th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. I remember the crowds that night, and hearing Bill Clinton’s aging voice fill Rabin Square when he spoke at the rally.
But the other voice I remember that night was Noa’s, calm and measured as always, when she asked if I knew who Kayla Mueller was.
Mueller was a young American woman drawn to humanitarian and human rights issues, and to the Middle East. In 2013 she was kidnapped after leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Aleppo, Syria, and then held captive by ISIS for 18 months. During that time she reportedly was forced into a marriage with the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. She remained in ISIS captivity until being killed in unclear circumstances in early 2015.
But before all this hell that Kayla Mueller experienced, she had been in a far more pleasant place: Noa’s welcoming apartment in Jerusalem. This is why Noa asked if I knew who she was. In the months before I had been a guest in Noa’s home, Kayla had been as well.
What follows is an interview with Noa, telling us a little about Kayla, and then a little about herself as well.
Tell us about the day you learned that Kayla Mueller had been taken by ISIS?
I came across an article on an Israeli website that said that an American woman who was taken by ISIS was apparently dead. I just looked at it and I remember looking at the photo and seeing the name and feeling like it was familiar but I didn’t realize then that it was her. I read the article more and then I’m thinking that it’s her but can’t believe that it’s the same person I met. Then I went back through our correspondence on Couchsurfing, compared the photos, and knew that it was definitely her.
It made complete sense that it was Kayla because of her personality, the stuff I knew she was involved with, the type of things that she was active in, like working with refugees.
How long did Kayla stay with you?
I think she stayed at my place just for one night. She was the second Couchsurfing person to stay at my place. It was a really, really positive experience.
What are your memories of that time together? What kind of person was Kayla?
Feel free to correct my English because I feel like whatever I’m going to say is not going to convey what I want to convey, to grasp her character or how special I thought she was.
The fact that I remember her just from one night says a lot about her. I don’t know if she would remember me — she hosted or was hosted by so many people. And I’m sure that most of her hosts would remember her because she was one of a kind. She was living life differently from the rest of us. She was very calm, she was very mature, she was younger than me and yet I remember feeling that she was the older one in the sense that she was really wise. She had an ease and a peace with herself.
Kayla said she had requested I host her because she saw on my profile that we had something in common. I was working with homeless women at the time and she also had experience working with women in shelters. We talked a lot about our work. It’s one of the reasons I was happy to join Couchsurfing, because it allows you to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet.
I was really inspired by her. I’m not just saying this; I really felt it. She was working with refugees, even in Israel. And she wasn’t afraid to get dirty. She was really going in and she was so young, and I thought she was so courageous.
To have shared your home and time with someone who would later be kidnapped and killed in captivity. . .what is this like? Does it affect in some small way how you see or live life?
It’s hard to answer this question. Most of this time it just makes me ask myself why did I meet her? What was the point of it? There’s something so random in a way. To spend one night in my place. I know it’s not like I’m the only person who met her; many people did. But I ask myself why — why did I get to meet her? So this is one thing I feel. The other thing is gratefulness.
It makes me very sad whenever she comes to my mind. It’s impossible to grasp, to really grasp it.
Turning now to you, tell us something more about yourself?
I was born and raised in Jerusalem, which I feel is a big part of my personality. I live in Tel Aviv with my dog, Otis, named after Otis Redding. I’ve been working for several years with youth and young adults in distress. But I recently quit to go back to school to get a Masters of Social Work.
I like traveling and meeting people from all over the world. I like dancing — ballet, contemporary, jazz. I danced all my life until about five years ago. Then I took a break — got too caught up with my job, etc — but am starting back now.
I’m a terrible dancer.
Dance awkwardly in your bedroom, but dance. When I’m alone I dance like a goof. I like dancing like an awkward person; sometimes it’s really fun. You should do that.
Back to yourself…
My mom was born in Egypt and grew up in Uruguay. She came to Israel when she was about 18 or 19. My dad was born and raised in Turkey. He grew up in Istanbul and came to Israel when he was about 19. That’s what Jewish people did at the time, you know; they came to Israel. All of my mom’s family came to Israel but my dad’s family stayed in Turkey. So I still have my grandmother there and my cousins, aunt, and uncle.
I visit Turkey almost every year. Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world and feels like a second home. It’s so complicated. As an Israeli, being in a complicated place is familiar. I feel at home there because of the combination of, and tension between, the secular and religious. The food is amazing.
But the political changes in recent years is worrying — for the Jewish community and for liberal Turkish people in general.
What do you like to do when not working?
Dancing, walking my dog, going to the beach with my dog or friends. I’m a city girl. I like going to cafes, to movies, out drinking. I like to spend time with friends and family.
What’s your favorite thing about Tel Aviv?
Right now I’m in a stage of life where I want to move out of Tel Aviv, so it might not be a good time to ask.
But first of all I like the beach. And I guess the feeling of being in a young and alive city. People can express their creativity in different ways — in food, how they dress, their art.
But I prefer Jerusalem. My heart is there. It’s kind of like what I said about Istanbul. Jerusalem is more complex than Tel Aviv. Most people don’t like Jerusalem because of the sense of complexity and conflict, but to me this is what makes it interesting.
In Jerusalem you really see a variety of people. You meet people who are different from you. In Tel Aviv I’m surrounded by people who are similar to me. And plus the market in Jerusalem — Mahane Yehuda Market — is the best market in the whole world.
I didn’t always like Jerusalem. I have a lot of issues with it but I have made my peace with the city.
So why don’t I live there? All my friends are in Tel Aviv. We have all moved here.
What was one of the most defining moments in your life?
My first big trip — six months in western Europe — just after the army. I was definitely a different person after that trip.
How were you a different person?
I experienced myself differently: as a person with options, in charge of her own destiny, capable of finding her own way in the world, meeting people, getting by, being creative. Not that I wasn’t like that before but traveling on your own when you’re 20 or 21…you go through a lot of moments and once you get passed them you feel more capable.
Some people reading this might wonder if the army was also a defining moment?
The army was also a defining moment, for similar reasons. It too is an experience that, once you’ve gone through it, makes you feel capable. And when finally you finish the army you really feel free. Going on the trip to Europe was a continuation of that freedom.
Tell us about one of your favorite childhood memories?
This is the first one that comes to mind and it is very Israeli: In the summer my parents and their friends used to rent a big house in Beit Yanai, near Tel Aviv, and everyone would go there for a week. One summer my dad couldn’t come because he had to do army reserve duty. That was very upsetting for me. But one day he was given a few hours break and he came and took me to a place nearby called the Pancake House. Just seeing him come and take me to this place, eating pancakes together, was magical. It made me feel like these pancakes were so delicious, the best in the world.
Ten years later I went back to the Pancake House and the pancakes were unimpressive.
Who do you most admire in life?
Can I say my grandmother? She’s not alive anymore. I’m inspired by a lot of people, but I’m not the kind of person who mentions big names like Mahatma Gandhi or something like that. My grandmother influenced me directly.
She grew up in Egypt. She was the spoiled girl who always knew what she wanted. She married relatively late for that time — she was 25. She just had this presence to her. She was very assertive, and she was a woman with a voice. She was very colorful, full of passion, and very skilled in whatever she was doing — cooking, sewing, playing bridge (she was one of the best bridge players in Israel). She didn’t become a professor or something like that but she was the best in what she did. She was beautiful, always looked her best, always had the red lipstick and red nail polish. She made the best out of her life. She never wasted a minute.
And that to me is inspiring. She didn’t have a lot of money, wasn’t rich, but she made the most with what she had and was a good person. That’s how I want to be.
What is one of the most beautiful things you’ve seen?
I don’t know why it’s so hard for me to answer this. Maybe cause there’s too many…I see beauty in many things almost everyday.
I saw a photo you posted on Instagram. A mother and a baby — it was beautiful! You can put that as my answer to the question!
What is one of the ugliest or worst things you’ve seen?
Well I see a cockroach on my floor right now and it’s pretty upsetting.
What brings you joy?
Good food, good company, good music, my nieces and nephews, a trip, a really good concert…a lot of things. Camping on the beach — I did that on my birthday, and that was a lot of fun.
What do you fear?
I fear regretting things. I don’t want to feel regret over stuff I didn’t do or achieve. I fear losing my loved ones.
You want to hear something crazy? It’s about Kayla. In recent weeks Israelis have been talking about going to Sinai for the Yom Kippur holiday. People keep talking about whether it’s safe or not. And I keep feeling that the only reason I’m not going is because of what happened to Kayla. It’s not that I’m afraid of a terror attack — we have those in Israel too — but Kayla…it’s something you see in a movie or book but suddenly it is an option, it’s real, and that scares me.
If you had a chance for a do-over in life, what would you do differently and why?
I would not have stopped dancing. Don’t give up your passion.
Tell us about an embarrassing moment in your life?
First time on a horse. I was riding and began to slip sideways. Not a dramatic fall but a really slow slide down the side of the saddle, where I got stuck in the stirrup. The horse went in a circle for a minute before I got free.
What are three books you love, and why?
The first to come to mind is The Life Before Us. I read it when I was 14 and recently I read it again in French. It tells the story of a boy who grew up the son of a prostitute, was abandoned, and then was taken care of by an ex-prostitute who cared for abandoned children. It’s a really, really beautiful story. You should read it. Everyone should read it.
Second is Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F. It is based on a true story…which also includes prostitution. (I don’t know why the two books I’ve just chosen have prostitutes in them — this is interesting; I’ve never thought about it before.) When I was 17 I read the book over and over again. You can see why I’m working in the field in which I’m working. I had an attraction to these kinds of stories and people even as a teen. Christiane’s life story is similar to the kind of girls I would later work with.
I just finished a really good book called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: A Novel. I think you’re going to love it. I won’t tell you what it’s about.
What would a perfect day look like for you?
Would I be here, or traveling abroad? Would I be in Paris, or London? Spending the whole day by the beach is a perfect day; you don’t need more than that. Then finish with a really good dinner with friends. Or having a picnic…a picnic beside the river in Paris. Anything that involves spending time with my dog, friends, or family.
You live in a country that is often in the news, and that people express polarized opinions about? Is there something you wish more people understood better about Israel?
I think there are a lot of reasons to criticize Israel. It’s definitely not a perfect country. But at the same time there is a lot of ignorance and lack of knowledge about so many parts of the conflict and of how things really are in Israel — not just in terms of the conflict. And that’s frustrating because it doesn’t help improve the situation; it makes it worse sometimes.
Most people here, on both sides, are concerned about their families, their own circle, and don’t want to harm anyone. If we are offered a sensible solution that would secure our families and give us normality — and I’m talking about both sides here — we would take that opportunity.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
I would like to go back to that question about a defining moment in my life. The most defining moments are when I meet new people, usually from other parts of the world with life stories really different from mine. They all have a part in shaping my personality. I feel grateful for meeting them. It stretches my limits — limits of my imagination, perception, knowledge…of everything.
A link to a 20/20 program about Kayla Mueller, which aired in August 2016: http://abcnews.go.com/International/fullpage/brian-ross-investigates-kayla-mueller-girl-left-41600838