It's 10:00 on a Saturday night, and Yaron Yemini is live on the air with Ashraf, in Cairo, Egypt. The guy has been almost shouting for twenty minutes now, his Arabic accelerating to such a furious pace that it seems impossible the host will let him continue.
But Yemini just sits there, tucked into the corner of the tiny studio just off I-95 in Little Haiti, a hairy hand resting on his hip, his back straight and belly slightly protruding, his lower lip rubbing slowly over his front teeth, his head bent forward, listening. Ashraf sounds angry: Is he denouncing Israel? Proclaiming jihad against the United States? Declaring his brotherhood with the Mahdi Army?
"Okay, habibi," Yemini finally says in a thick Hebrew accent, clicking a button on his computer and ending the call. "So we just had a nice caller named Ashraf, in Egypt, and he's very concerned with farming practices; the way the farming out there is using pesticides. He thinks they are going to destroy the world ... wow!" It's possibly his favorite word.
"I get calls from all over Arabia," Yemini explains once the mike is off. His first language is Hebrew, but he picked up some Arabic from fishermen near his home on a kibbutz between Tel Aviv and Haifa. "I get a lot from the Gaza Strip. These Arabs, they think I'm interesting they call and ask, öIs there any more Israelis like you?' That's what they ask. öAre you the only one?' "
Yemini scoots his chair over to a computer, clicks on a playlist, and the Dave Matthews Band song "When the World Ends" comes on. He laughs. "Ha ha, get it? When the world ends!"
Every day from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., and often much later into the night, the 63-year-old expat broadcasts his show, Radio for the World a crazy mix of music, interviews, and personal ramblings. The station's entire technological capacity consists of three computers, a few microphones, and a sound board, all atop a tangled mass of wires. He has listeners in more than two dozen countries.
Yemini came to the United States from Israel just after the end of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which he refused to fight. He came to see the Indian transcendentalist Maharaji, who was holding a conference in Orlando. Yemini decided not to return. A few months into his stay, his life changed forever. He was working construction on the third story of a building in Philadelphia when he opened a door and stepped into thin air. "There was no floor," he remembers, "and it was just too late. I reached out, but there was just nothing to grab onto."
He fell down the empty elevator shaft onto a concrete floor, instantly shattering his pelvis. "Ooh my God, it felt like someone took a sword and cut my body in half," he recalls matter-of-factly. "The pain was gradual, you know? But it was very, very painful. I didn't lose consciousness.... When the paramedics came, I heard one of them tell to the other [the damage] is for life."
Then 30 years old, Yemini permanently lost use of both legs. "I had to change my dancing style," he says, smiling. "But I gained some parking privileges!"
Six years later he met and married a young, beautiful Israeli woman named Shula, who had a three-year-old daughter by a previous marriage. In 1981 they moved to Miami and started a business from home, supplying health food to local shops and restaurants, living in what Yemini and his wife still call "the tent" a ramshackle assemblage of aluminum tubing and canvas on an enclosed quarter of a block in Little Haiti. Shula gave birth to two sons there, and in 1986 the family moved to a house on Miami Beach. "I said, enough! I need a closet!" Shula says. "He didn't want to move ... for him it was like heaven there."
The idea to start his own radio station came to Yemini about twelve years ago, when he was invited to read some of his poetry on a local Hebrew radio program. Soon he began hosting his own show on the station. Finally about six years ago he struck out on his own and started 123radio.com, his own Internet radio station, available around the world. He read poetry, did interviews with people, and talked about what he calls "self-knowledge," with some content streaming separately in English and Hebrew. A year ago he subleased 105.5 FM, a one-time rap station, and took his show live on the air.
These days he broadcasts from the site of his old home in Little Haiti, which he has turned into what he calls the "Garden of the Poets" a bizarre outdoor patio decorated with tropical plants and bright-color rugs. His old tent is still standing, and nearby is a little thatched tiki bar that sells beer to customers for two dollars. It has the feel of a tropical shantytown.
Out on the street Yemini's show plays constantly on a set of speakers. On any given day his distinct Hebrew accent booms out across the crumbling sidewalks and vacant lots nearby: "So many things happening on this planet ... truly ... this is the home sweet home. Look at the sun even though it's not forever, it seems like it is...."
These are Yemini's "poems," which are the staple of his show along with his interviews. Occasionally poem and interview converge, leaving unprepared guests (he interviewed Elie Wiesel once) wondering, perhaps, what they've gotten themselves into. And yet precisely because they are so unconventional Yemini's broadcasts are charming and sometimes powerful.
One of his favorite interviews, he says, was with a fellow named James Brown who had spent time in prison. Yemini plays a recording of the encounter. When he asks about Brown's career as a robber, the latter responds, "I had a little gang. We'd get together, take money from other people, take money from cash registers, and then go back to school, and take the honeys girls that we liked out to lunch."
"So you'd spend money on them, so they'd give you the honey, eh?" Yemini asks, laughing.
Yemini and Brown had met on a corner and become close friends. Brown had AIDS and his health was declining. "I'm sorry this illness knock you down," Yemini comments in the interview.
"That's why I step in the Garden. It keeps the body circulating. You might have pain, but once you come in the garden, all pain relief," Brown says.
Over the years Yemini has befriended a number of troubled people. "He likes to help people," Shula explains, pausing before adding, "He thinks that he can help them get rid of drugs and alcohol. I think he cannot."
Six months ago Brown died from AIDS. "I never aired the last interview I did with him," Yemini says. "But I did a great memorial show for him on the radio."
On a recent Saturday night, Yemini sits inside the small studio trying to install a new audio receiver. Easing himself onto the floor, he carefully plugs in the device. Then, politely refusing help, he grabs the arm of his chair, does a pull-up, and slowly plops back into his seat.
"Can't get too heavy, you know?" he says cheerfully. "Can't let things get too lazy."
While a song plays on the air, Yemini turns to the computer and opens up a digital map of the world covered in yellow lights, representing listeners around the world. Most are concentrated in the United States and Europe, but there are some in South America, Australia, Africa, and especially the Middle East. Somewhere off Madagascar, a single, solitary light blinks: "Look, he's swimming in the middle of the ocean," Yemini says merrily. "Wow!"
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Indeed, as Yemini turns down the music and begins speaking, instant text messages pop up some in English, some Hebrew, some Arabic greeting him. A few minutes later his cell phone rings, and he answers in his usual way: "Life is good!"
"What, you get a baby?" he says into the phone after a minute. "Oh, a boy, okay ... don't send him to the army!" he chuckles and hangs up.
"A listener," he explains.
Then the phone rings again. "Hello," answers Yemini, "Life is good!"