"The worshipers jostled their way through the doglegged gate wary of the soldiers pacing the ramparts overhead..."
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The worshipers jostled their way through the doglegged gate wary of the soldiers pacing the ramparts overhead. Suddenly two helicopters swept into view. The thwop thwop thwop of their rotary blades punctuated the noon sky sending an unhappy murmur through the sullen crowd. David Kessler managed a couple of fast shots of their underbellies before they disappeared over the dung-colored walls.
When he swung his camera back to earth, a news crew had started running live feed from the other end of the short stoop that they temporarily shared. “Palestinians by the thousands have heeded their President’s call to protest yesterday’s arrests,” a journalist reported, and David jumped down to join the crowd on the cobbled street disappearing into the Old City’s covered passages.
Where vendors usually cajoled shoppers, the metal shutters had been rolled down and padlocked, and in the side alleys soldiers smoked cigarettes feigning a nonchalance that their nervous hands betrayed. Lured on by the hypnotic call to prayer, David soon arrived at the towering green gates to the holy sanctuary. The crowd squeezed through a bottleneck where soldiers were stopping every bearded youth. “Your pass has expired!” one of them shouted, nearly slapping a teenager with his ID as David successfully slipped past; or so he thought he had, until a hand landed on his shoulder.
“No camera,” a soldier told him.
David displayed his press card. “I’m a journalist.”
“I’m an American journalist.”
“You want me to watch your American camera?”
“Not on a bet.”
David pushed his way through the crowd to retrace his steps to Damascus Gate.
Issa leaned in his doorway watching the worshipers walk in the street unmolested by the usual press of cars and crowded buses. Absently he waved a newspaper over vegetable crates to unsettle the flies that speckled the melons and wilting lettuce. “Issa,” he heard, and turned to his father-in-law.
“Salaam aleikum,” Issa greeted the old man, and touched his heart.
“Aleikum salaam,” Azzedine replied, wiping sweat from his brow with a square of red handkerchief.
“Did you have trouble on the way?”
“They are checking IDs on Nablus Road. Are you ready?”
With a swift tug Issa draped a tarp over the vegetables and lowered a steel shutter halfway down the store’s front, a signal that he would return after prayers, and the two men joined the crowd on the long block ending at Damascus Gate. The soldiers, fanned across the broad steps that descended to the vaulted entrance, had left only a narrow gap for worshipers to funnel through.
Thwop! Thwop! Thwop!
Again the helicopters swept in low prompting cries of alarm. Policemen, sitting tall on large bay horses, had to struggle to control their whinnying mounts. “Look how lathered up they are,” Azzedine pointed out.
“They’re nervous,” Issa said. “I’m nervous, too. We should go back. There’s going to be trouble today.”
“Nonsense. The soldiers are here to prevent trouble.”
“Ammi,” said Issa, exasperated with his father-in-law, “the soldiers are here because they expect trouble.”
“Well, I have come to pray, not cause trouble. Are you joining me?” With that, the old man set off down the steps.
Issa was tempted to let him go alone but couldn’t—what if there was trouble?—so he reluctantly pushed his way after him. Two women, their faces concealed by scarves, snaked past him, trying to move unnoticed and untouched through the stream of mostly men; and Issa, stepping aside for them, lost his footing on the worn steps. He pitched into a soldier’s plastic shield, whose hand tensed on his rifle even as he helped him regain his balance. “Toda,” he thanked the soldier with one of the few Hebrew words that he knew.
Catching up with his father-in-law, Issa took his arm as they pressed their way through the ancient gate. News cameramen had perched themselves at vantage points to get footage for their evening broadcasts. “It’s faster this way,” he said, and steered him into an alley.
“But everyone is going the other way.”
“Not everyone knows the shortcuts.”
His father-in-law didn’t entirely believe him. How could he, an infidel, possibly know a shortcut to the mosque? But the old man’s grumbling stopped when minutes later they stepped through the gates to enter the sun-drenched sanctuary of Haram al-Sharaf. Arcades surrounded the immense field of parched earth where, atop a raised platform, stood the great Golden Dome supported by columns covered with arabesque tiles the cool colors of water: cerulean blue, Aegean turquoise, aquamarine. The prayers of worshipers rising and falling in their faith’s embrace broke over the stone altar protected by the dome, the same altar where God had stayed Abraham’s sacrificial hand and the Prophet Mohammed had launched his miraculous night journey to heaven.
“We must wash,” Azzedine said and headed for the fountain.
“I can see the goddamn crowds!” Chief of Staff Ben-Ami shouted into the telephone while positioning his wheelchair in front of his four televisions mounted on the wall, each reporting the same story but only one was broadcasting from inside the sanctuary. “How the hell did CNN get in there?” he growled.
“I’m checking on that now, sir,” answered the officer on the other end of the line.
“You goddamn better check on it! If CNN can sneak a camera in there, what the hell do you think a goddamn terrorist can sneak in?”
“That’s not an answer to my question!” Ben-Ami noticed movement on the television. “Standby, soldier. Something is about to start.”
Azzedine led them through a stand of scrub pine where women had sought refuge beneath their fragile needles from the blistering sun. The fountain had dampened the stone bench where they sat to remove their shoes and socks and trickle water over their feet.
“You are becoming a good Muslim,” the old man said.
“I have a strict teacher. Where would you like to pray?”
Azzedine pointed to the platform encircling the great golden dome. “There’s more room up there.”
The pine needles pricked Issa’s bare feet. He welcomed the relief of climbing the smooth marble steps. At the top, he paused awed by the surrounding sea of worshipers; he had never seen so many people in one place before. Women wrapped in gauze huddled at the altar’s entrance. Beyond those aphasic sentries Azzedine selected a spot where he unfolded his large handkerchief, knelt on it, and praying touched his forehead to the ground. Mumbling prayers he rolled back on his haunches and tipped down again. Issa remained standing, silently praying, repeating the few Islamic phrases he knew while substituting God for Allah. Prayer came easily to Issa, who imagined God didn’t care what He was called as long as He was invoked. He sneaked in making the sign of the cross as electronic shrieks started bouncing between the sanctuary’s arcaded walls. A moment later, a mullah intoned Allahu akbar! through a raspy loudspeaker.
“Allahu akbar!” the faithful roared back. God is great!
“Our enemies have dared to enter our homes to arrest our sons and our daughters!” the mullah decried. “They want us to fear them, but we shall not be afraid. We have our faith!”
“We have our martyrs!”
“And by Allah’s commandment, we shall rid our land of our enemies!”
“Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!”
“Rise up, o Palestine! Rise up against our occupiers! Rise up! Rise up!” The mullah spread his arms and bawled to the heavens, “La ilaha ila Allah…”
“No, I don’t need a goddamn translation!” Ben-Ami barked into the telephone. “Go in. And find that goddamn cameraman!”
He slammed down the receiver.
On the muted television sets he watched his battle unfold.
Soldiers rushed the gates.
The crowd fell back, panic passing through them like a ripple in a pond.
Then the helicopters came swooping in over the low walls.
Thwop! Thwop! Thwop!
Ben-Ami could easily imagine the hollow sucking sound of their blades. “Sheyla!” he shouted for his secretary. “Get the Prime Minister on the telephone!” He unmuted one of his televisions in time to hear the first rifle shots. Then the Chief of Staff maneuvered his wheelchair back to his desk, already forming the words he would use to recast history.
The mullah’s last words were still resonating between the sanctuary’s walls when the soldiers exploded through the green gates, springing into combat positions and sweeping their rifles side-to-side. Boys scrambled up the marble steps and pelted them with stones. The soldiers shouted warnings to stop but more stones cut off their words.
“Soldiers have entered the sanctuary!” Issa cried.
Azzedine peered over the balustrade. “But this is a holy place!”
They heard the pop of a rifle and a canister arced over their heads spewing tear gas. Azzedine doubled over coughing, and Issa, his own eyes stinging, pulled him down the marble steps. Frightened worshipers rushing past them knocked the shoes from the old man’s hand. He tried to retrieve them but Issa propelled him along. More rifle shots, and with a sharp cry a woman fell from the shadows of the dome. A wound flowered red in the white gauze at her throat.
At the bottom of the steps, Issa tried giving Azzedine his own shoes. “Hurry, put mine on.”
“But we are still inside the sanctuary!”
Issa knelt and frantically worked his shoes onto the old man’s calloused feet. “I am certain Allah will forgive the transgression under the circumstances.”
“This is no place for your irreverence,” Azzedine said, gripping his son-in-law’s shoulder for balance.
Elbows punched them as hard as fists as they fought their way through the Old City’s jammed passageways. Women timorously pressed themselves against the stone walls when men swept past whooping war cries. Azzedine shuffled along in the too-large shoes as Issa hobbled barefoot behind him. Nearing Damascus Gate, stretcher bearers bouncing a body on a litter over their heads pushed past them shouting, “Make way! Let us through! Make way!”
Issa steered Azzedine through the doglegged gate in their wake.
David was snapping shots of arguing taxi drivers close to fisticuffs when the first wave of panicked worshipers poured out Damascus Gate. They scrambled up the stone steps losing shoes and caps quickly trampled underfoot. The stretcher bearers appeared, and tagging close behind them David recognized a friend half-supporting half-propelling an old man by his arm. He zoomed in on him saying under his breath, “Hello, Issa.”
David swung his camera back around to the taxi drivers, now helping slide the litter into a waiting ambulance.
Hands reached for it from inside…
Click! Click! Click!
… and even before its door slid shut, the ambulance was pulling away, siren wailing. The crowd around it, momentarily mollified by the rescue, was jolted by a loud thud. An oily cloud rising a few blocks away confirmed it was a bomb. With a roar the people fled into East Jerusalem’s labyrinth of narrow streets.
David fought against the tide. Breaking free, he sprinted towards the smoke changing his film while dodging traffic. He reached the torched bus as the first emergency vehicles arrived with their sirens blaring and blue lights flashing. Flames engulfed the vehicle and its unlucky passengers, some still seated upright as their flesh melted away. Everywhere the wounded moaned while stunned shopkeepers, standing in piles of broken glass, watched forensic teams start the discouraging task of picking flesh off walls with oversized tweezers and dropping them into cloudy plastic bags.
The scene was all too familiar to David. Somalia, Bosnia, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan. He’d covered their wars—wars all nourished by ancient carnage. Unexpectedly war had become the story he was destined to tell. Mogadishu had been his first story—the shittiest assignment given to the cub reporter—where he discovered the broken humanity that the war had swept over. Children lost to their mothers. Farmers lost to their land and families to their livelihoods. The young men forced to fight and the girls forced into prostitution. David had been telling war stories ever since, not afraid to explore what others were unwilling to find behind the front lines—though he’d been there enough times too. Wars only stopped when they became too personal and David had decided to personalize each one. He prowled hooker alleys, drug dens and black markets using his reporter’s camera to capture the images that would wake up the world to each war’s own misery; not its carnage—that was ancient news—but its toll on people taking detours to survive. When it got back to headquarters that he had been prowling Kabul at night masquerading as an Afghani deaf mute, his editor ordered him home and David balked. He had his own war to fight: the war against wars, and he decided to cover the one war that had spawned so many others. The war for the Holy Land. A war so old that it had lost its human face.
David had decided to give it one.
The medic tagging body parts.
The bloodied woman on the litter.
The dazed boy holding a cone with ice cream dripping off his elbow.
Click! Click! Click!
Issa avoided eye contact with the jittery soldiers as he hastened Azzedine up Salah Edeen Street, careful with his bare feet to sidestep rubble left over from other recent troubles. Shopkeepers stood in their doorways nervously assessing the situation. Should they stay open—business had been bad and they needed the money—or roll down their steel shutters and go home? Issa, too, debated what to do, and with a defeated sigh rolled open his half-closed shutter. It was pointless to stay open but even more pointless not to—as if there could be relative degrees of pointlessness. Issa was mulling over that possibility as they entered the small grocery scented with olive brine, clotted cheese and cardamom. Flies, their afternoon languor disturbed, rocketed through the dust-moted air.
“I’ll make tea,” he offered.
“We’re not going home?” Azzedine asked.
“I can’t close my shop every time there is an incident.” Issa ran water into a spouted copper pot, and lighting a burner, adjusted the flame under it.
Azzedine shook his head. “I’ll never understand why you stay here.”
“I was born here.”
“But you have no more family here.”
It was true. Issa’s father had died two years earlier, he recollected sorrowfully; his mother he had never known—she died in childbirth. “Here I have a shop and a permit to live,” he reminded Azzedine. “Anywhere else, I have no status, no rights, no way to make a living. I would be like a refugee.”
Toot toot toot Issa heard coming down the street and he bounded to the door. “Are you going to Beit Hanina?” he called to the jitney driver.
The man swerved to the curb. “It’s not out of my way.”
“He can take you home,” Issa reported to Azzedine.
“I’ve not had my tea!”
“I’ll telephone Nadia to make sure she has a pot waiting for you.”
“What if there are more troubles? What should I tell her?”
“That I am on my way home.”
The other passengers scooted over to let Azzedine crowd in. Issa pressed some coins into the driver’s hand. “I already paid for you,” he said.
Indignant, the old man answered, “I have my own money!”
“Don’t bite a hand that’s helping you,” a woman said, and the other passengers laughed.
No sooner had the driver pulled away than Azzedine cried, “Stop! Stop!” and the jitney lurched to a halt. Everyone waited patiently while he struggled in the cramped space to remove Issa’s shoes, which he handed back through the window. As the car pulled away again, it erupted in laughter. Issa was smiling too until he saw a jeep stop at the corner. A half dozen soldiers climbed out. Two lit cigarettes in the shade of a doorway while the others brooded in the fierce sun.
Music started from a shop across the street, its swelling, rhythmic beat seductive, and Issa felt a twinge of hope that he might have a last customer or two. But there wasn’t a pedestrian to lure, and surely the day’s troubles would make business worse. He lowered the awning and went back inside. He stuffed mint leaves into a short glass, added two spoons of sugar and poured in the boiling water. He sat in his chair and reached for the newspaper, and turned its familiar pages.
Major Jakov Levy needed a cigarette so badly he was ready to smoke his desk, not sit behind it listening to some private on the telephone tell him, “You still have to allow diplomats and press to cross.”
“That’s bullshit,” Jakov shot back. “Do you remember the UN case last year?”
“I didn’t write the rules, sir.”
“I know. I did.”
Jakov slammed down the receiver and two seconds later was out the door of the prefab metal hut that served as his office, his car parked not a hundred meters away, a cigarette—three cigarettes—waiting for him in the glove compartment. When he promised Leah that he would only smoke in his car, it hadn’t been a day of rockets, snipers, and now another suicide bomber in Jerusalem; but if he had to sit in his car in the brutal heat to keep his promise to his wife, he would, just as he would have a goddamn cigarette.
A tall man easily distracted by his worries, the major strode so determinedly towards his car that he didn’t notice the three trucks approaching the checkpoint. Overloaded with careening stacks of crated tomatoes, they had jumped the line that stretched to the far end of No Man’s Land and were kicking up dust on the shoulder racing towards the barrier. The lead driver waved a white paper out his window as he would a truce flag and laid into his horn. Jakov, startled by the noise, looked up to see the trucks hurtling towards him and his stomach knotted; he had a dread of ambushes—he’d planned enough of them and been surprise attacked himself as many times. Every soldier in the watchtowers aimed his rifle at the approaching trucks as Sergeant Avi stepped out of the pillbox and waved them to a stop. Taking the lead driver’s papers, he examined them, and looked up catching Jakov’s eye. “Major Levy!” he shouted.
“Damn it!” Jakov said to himself.
The three drivers, predicting a delay, turned off their engines and silence fell over the checkpoint. A soldier slid the action on his rifle, someone coughed and no one spoke. All eyes up and down the line were on what was happening. The major’s boots crunched the hard gravel as he joined Sergeant Avi, an affable guy with an athlete’s build, scruffy beard and unruly hair poking out from his helmet; his shirt was stuck by sweat to his broad back. “What’s the problem?” Jakov demanded.
“They want to jump the line,” Avi told him.
“There’s been another bomb in Jerusalem. The border’s closed.”
“He’s got passes signed by you.”
“I don’t care if they’re signed by God. He still has to wait in the fucking line.”
“Seven dead and fifteen injured, Sergeant. It was lunch hour on Jaffa Street. Who could do that?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t either.”
Jakov returned to his office, his cigarette forgotten.
The screen door slammed behind Amin Mousa, his nostrils flaring at the sweetish stench of overripe tomatoes stacked in crates shoulder high around the clearing. Stepping off the porch, he disturbed a blanket of flies that rose off the fruit in a buzzing black cloud. Rashid, his scrawny foreman, unfolded himself in the shade of the mechanic’s shed. “These don’t have much time,” he said.
“Mohammed!” Amin shouted, and a waifish teenage kid appeared in the shed’s door wiping his hands on a greasy rag. “I need that truck!”
“The new fuel pump doesn’t fit.”
“Then find one that does. Today! These can still be in Tel Aviv by tonight.”
They heard a truck’s horn. The driver who’d been turned back at the checkpoint bounded towards them on the dirt lane. “It looks like he won’t be,” Rashid said.
The driver braked to a stop in a cloud of dust and leaned out the window. “They’re letting nothing across,” he shouted over his rattling engine. “Something’s happened in Jerusalem.”
“Major Levy signed the passes himself,” Amin protested.
The driver shrugged. “He’s the one who revoked them personally.”
“Where are the others?” Rashid asked.
“They’re holding a place for me in line.”
“Don’t lose it.”
The driver, grinding his gears, backed up to turn around and drove off.
Rashid chewed off the tip of a broken fingernail, spat it out and went back to his spot in the shade.
Mohammed disappeared back into the shed.
The buzzing flies grew more urgent than cicadas on a summer night, and Amin fled inside to escape them. He passed the living room with its fine furniture and melancholy air and climbed the stairs to his father’s study; or so Amin still considered it despite his father’s death some twenty years earlier. He’d allowed the room to keep its stuffiness so nurtured by his father; the stuffiness associated with another era’s gentlemen’s clubs where the air wasn’t fresh and the tone was subdued, and business could be conducted undisturbed by the distractive presence of women. It was in that stuffy room where Amin had sorted through his father’s papers, slowly unraveling the family’s treacherous state of affairs.
From his earliest childhood he could remember his father bent over a journal filling its yellowed pages with his articulated script. Amin lifted the heavy tablet from the drawer where he kept it and squared it on the desk, and touched its soft leather cover—something his father and grandfather had done enough times to blacken its edge with their fingers. He opened it, letting pages drift down until he stopped them to read,
1 February 1977. We have returned from visiting Amin in Oxford. How bitterly cold it was! And how bitter our return. I can hardly write these words. Jews have taken our land! ‘Settlers’ they call themselves. I had to consult the dictionary to learn its meaning. It seems improbable that Gaza should be considered in need of settlement. We are so over‑occupied with our own people.
As he did every time he read that entry, Amin remarked of his father’s naïveté, “It was a different kind of occupation, Papa.”
He crossed the study to open its broad window. The perfume of his mother’s lemon trees veined the otherwise parched air. I’ve appealed, of course, his father had written. I fear that all will come to naught.
“You fought hard, Papa,” Amin murmured.
Nothing had devastated Amin’s mother as much as losing her lemon groves. When the trees were in their fullest bloom, after supper Yasmin would stand in the yard exclaiming how they smelled their sweetest at night. In moonlight you could see their milky flowers running over the hills. They still owned a smaller if meaner farm—Amin’s intended dowry—and his father, despite his ruinous state, managed to call in enough favors to build a new home on it worthy of the Mousa name. His mother asked Rashid to clear an area for a small grove, and the next day the foreman arrived with a truck full of saplings, claiming most came from the old garden. How that was possible they couldn’t guess yet all hoped it was true.
They made a celebration of the day. Home for the summer, Amin participated in deciding which trees to plant where. Yasmin, always full of superstitions, hung a beaded amulet in the branches of the first tree planted and tossed coins onto the soil around it. Rashid had brought a pine that he wanted to plant in the middle of the grove. Amin’s father was pleased with the tree, which the foreman explained was a rare species for the area, growing taller and sturdier than the local scrub varieties; though he was unconvinced about Rashid’s chosen spot for planting it, thinking it would look orphaned amidst the lemons. Rashid finally won the day arguing the pine would give enough shade to prolong the blooms on the closest trees. Amin’s mother was thrilled. What could his father say?
Rashid enlarged the grove over the next seasons, and the pine grew tall and straight benefitting from the same special care that Yasmin gave her lemons. Like a giant sundial its shadow moved around the grove as Rashid had predicted, providing enough protection that the lemons indeed bloomed all year round.
Amin glanced back at the desk. His father sat at it writing in his journal. Looking up he said, “Ours is a proud legacy, son. It should not be forgotten.” Or so Amin had grown used to hearing him say. Then the familiar apparition disappeared.
In one movement Jakov slid onto his car seat and popped open the glove compartment for his cigarettes. He started the engine, punched in the lighter, and rolled down the window while waiting for it to pop out. When it did, he lit up and felt the instant rush of nicotine. He pulled onto the road, grateful when the classical music station announced the start of an hour of Vivaldi instead of the usual dreary symphony that filled the hour’s drive home. But Vivaldi’s cheerfulness couldn’t dissipate Jakov’s essential gloom nor his longing for a stretch of days—he was too realistic to hope for weeks or months—that weren’t beset by conflict. Even in that pastoral setting, where fields of goldenrod shimmered in the lengthening light, two jets tattooing the sky with long vapor trails were reminders of their constant war. Where was the ‘pastoral’ in that? Where was the cheer?
Men in white djellabiahs milled about the courtyard smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and spitting into the dirt. From doorways draped for privacy they could hear women laughing, but the seared space between the cinder block buildings belonged to them. On the temporary stage a boy fiddled with the sound system saying onetwothree so fast it sounded like one word. He scurried off when the mullah appeared.
The men tossed aside their cigarettes and knelt in the dirt. “Allahu akbar,” the mullah intoned, and they replied that God, indeed, was great. The holy man launched into his predictable sermon ranting against their enemies, exhorting the men to join in their holy war, and crying out the names of those who had. “Let us not forget those who have died for Palestine! Let us not forget Yahya Ayyash!”
“You will be remembered!” every man cried back.
“You will be remembered!”
“You will be remembered!”
The litany continued, each name a separate sorrow and call to action. But Mohammed listened for only one name—“Suad Abu Hijleh!”—and his heart swelled with brotherly pride. “You are remembered!” he cried back, his fist lifted defiantly, tears in his eyes. The boys started chanting the martyrs’ names in a peppy rhythm, and soon a drummer joined them in a doorway. The men cheered the arrival of the Band of Martyrs who jumped onto the small stage. Only the drummer had an instrument, the others used only their hands and voices to perform spirited songs. The courtyard boiled with the flash of white robes and flailing arms. When the groom arrived another cheer went up and a cousin pulled him into the first of many dances that would last until morning. It would be as many hours before the bride and groom came together.
Mohammed tossed aside his cigarette and left the celebration by an alley littered with plastic water bottles. Overhead, red, green and black triangular banners hung listlessly in the breathless afternoon. When he reached the beach he had to shield his eyes from the sun’s glare. The air was malodorous from garbage strewn along the sand. He lit another cigarette and flicked the match towards a boat sliding onto shore. The fisherman jumped out, and carrying his meager catch walked away stoop-shouldered.
Mohammed looked at his watch. It was time to go. He followed the coast road a short distance enjoying the sea’s scant refreshment before returning to the refugee camp’s claustrophobic alleys.
David swished the photo paper around in the tray of developer. Issa’s portrait slowly revealed itself. When satisfied with its contrast, he slipped it into a tray of fixer solution, and jotted down the precise seconds he had exposed and developed the print. He moved it to a final wash tray with trickling water and began decanting the chemicals back into their plastic jugs. Three Palestinians dead and seven Israelis, the television in the living room reported. He had heard similar reports for so many battles yet still cringed when it was said as casually as a game score. He knew for some it was: a game of revenge in which evening the score was more important than winning because who could say who won in conflicts as old as history? Who lost, though, was easy enough to determine; and their pictures, overlapping and sometimes two deep, covered David’s darkroom walls and streamed out in long tentacles that reached into every whitewashed room of his apartment—the faces of war that he had collected since his first war.
There was a rhythmic knock on his ceiling. David ignored it, but it was not a knock that could be ignored and was instantly repeated. “Five minutes!” he shouted and checked that all the photo paper was safely sealed up. The upstairs door closed with a heavy thud and soon the whole building vibrated with footsteps bounding down an outside flight of metal stairs. David reshelved the plastic jugs envisioning second-by-second the boy finding his key behind the loose stone, working open his cranky lock, and on cue knocking on the darkroom door. He opened it, and glancing at the clock reported, “That was sixty-five seconds and I said five minutes.”
“You always say five minutes.” Joshua tried to see past him. “What are you doing?”
“I know that. Photos of what?”
“You want to look?” David opened the door wider, flipping from the red safe light to a white light.
“No, leave it on,” Joshua complained, and flipped the switch back. “You know I like to see your pictures the way you see them.”
David adjusted a small fan to blow on the prints.
“Who’s that?” Joshua asked.
“You have Arab friends?”
“Some. Don’t you?”
“Noam says I’m not supposed to. Why don’t you take colored pictures?”
“I prefer black-and-white for faces.”
“My mum says it’s old fashioned.”
“Why do you take so many pictures?”
“Why do you ask so many questions?”
“I’ll be eight next week and my mum says I won’t need to ask so many.”
“Joshua!” Katya called from the upper landing. “Are you down there with David?”
“Uh-oh. I forgot to tell her where I was going.”
“Not a cool move when moms are involved. We’d better go.”
They left the darkroom, passing the television which continued to report on the day’s troubles. “My mum says you watch too much TV,” the boy volunteered. “She says it’ll make you stupid.”
“I only watch the news.”
“She says the news is the worst.”
Katya stood outside the front door, looking peeved, her little bit of make-up needing refreshing. “Didn’t I tell you not to bother David?”
“He’s only printing pictures.”
“That’s work for some people. Isn’t that right, David?”
“He’s not a bother, really.”
“He’s a kid, he’s a bother, unless you’re his mother, and then in theory he’s a blessing. Did you tell me where you were going, young man?”
“You always know anyway.”
“And what if something happened and I didn’t know?” She pinched the boy’s shoulder. “Now go upstairs and take your bath. I don’t want you bothering David any more today.”
“He said I wasn’t bothering him!” Joshua threw off her hand and bounded up the steps.
Katya sighed and brushed back a tuft of red hair. She had a round, pleasant—if not especially pretty—face, and skin far too fair for Jerusalem’s intense sun. She didn’t tan but spotted, and her face and neck were always splotchy red. “He’ll talk to anyone. I worry he’ll wander off with some stranger. I didn’t worry so much at home, but things are so much more… worrisome here.”
“You worry too much, Mummy,” Joshua said from the upper landing.
“Because of you! And you are not supposed to be listening to our conversation, young man! But you’re no stranger, David,” Katya said, “and I’ve been meaning to ask you to come for Seder dinner. You shouldn’t be alone on Passover, and Efrahim has promised to tell a story.”
At that moment a short, pudgy man came around the corner of the building. With two clubbed feet, he was propped up on crutches with an easel hanging from one shoulder and a box of paints from the other. “I heard my name,” Efrahim said, “and like a good angel I thought I should appear.” He lugged his reluctant feet up the stone steps outside David’s door.
“Here, let me help you,” David said.
The old painter waved him off. “Please, no, you’ll set me off balance.” He reached the metal stairs, and firmly planting his crutches on the bottom one, readied himself for his tortured climb to the second floor.
Katya said, “You’re home late today, Efrahim.”
“Now that, David, is what makes a man truly happy, having a woman who notices when you are late coming home.” Efrahim dragged his lagging feet up another step and attacked the next with his crutches. “I am late, my lovely Katya, because sometimes only the afternoon light can solve a problem of perspective. Alas, today was only darkness.”
“Why do you talk funny?” Joshua asked from the landing.
“Ah-ha! I didn’t see you, young man, hiding in your own shadow. I’m always staring at my feet when I should be searching the stars!”
“You can’t hide in your own shadow,” the boy told him.
“And why not?”
“Because you can’t make a shadow if you’re in a shadow!”
“Who is raising this bright child? Ah, the beautiful Katya, of course!” Efrahim pulled himself up another step. “Run, girl, before I chase you inside!”
“You can’t run either,” the boy reminded him.
“Joshua!” Katya chided him. “Think about what you say before you say it.”
Efrahim conquered another step. “He’s right. I’m out of running practice.”
“I’m trying to convince David to join us for Seder. I promised you’d tell a story.”
“Surely you don’t need me to convince a handsome man to come to dinner?”
“To you we are all stories, aren’t we, David?”
“It’s partially true,” he confessed.
“Then if you come to Seder, I will tell a special one.”
“If that’s an invitation, then I’ll say yes.”
“It’s an invitation,” Joshua whispered from the landing.
David winked at him. “Then it’s yes, partner!”
“Good, that’s settled perfectly,” Katya said, and smiled warmly at him. “I’m glad.”
“Good, that’s settled perfectly,” Joshua imitated her.
“And you, young man, have a bath waiting. Now!”
The boy ran inside threatening, “I’ll use all the hot water first!”
“Ah ha!” Efrahim exclaimed as he reached the upper landing. “I have conquered Everest another day. Shabbat shalom.”
“Shabbat shalom,” they replied, and the old painter disappeared inside.
“He’s amazing,” Katya said. “You’re amazing too, David, how you are with Josh.” “I like him. He’s a good kid.”
“He feels safe with you.”
“He’s learning there’s not a fist in every man’s hand.”
“Was that the situation in London?”
“When he started hitting Josh I left. That’s why I’m glad you’re okay about Josh bothering you.”
“Even if I’m old-fashioned and watch too much TV?”
That time Katya did blush. “I’m going to kill that little monster!” she declared, and stomped up the steps.
David went back inside only long enough to stuff a kippah into his pocket and switch off the television mid-sentence of a pundit decrying the end of the peace process. He coaxed his rusty lock closed; his door was ancient enough to date to the era of the pasha who had built it to be his palace in the Holy Land. A hedge of stout rosemary bushes—as big as boxwoods back home—grew outside his door, and he ran his hands through them going down the short steps to the street. He was sniffing his palms when Joshua leaned over the railing on the upper landing. “Can I go with you?” he asked.
“You don’t know where I’m going.”
“I don’t care.”
“Anywhere but here, huh?”
The boy didn’t answer.
“Is there a problem, partner? I can keep a secret.”
“I don’t want to be here when Noam comes.”
“I thought you liked Noam.”
“It’s my mum who likes him.”
“She has to have friends, too.”
“I don’t have to like him even if she makes him my new dad!” Joshua ran inside slamming the door.
David waited in case he returned. The boy didn’t and he left, walking on the cliff side of the road that followed the edge of a deep and narrow valley. On the opposite ridge, the Old City with its dung-colored walls and assortment of towers and domes had turned bronze in the day’s lengthening sun. An Arab village meandered below, the scattered cypresses amidst its chalky warrens suggesting the only relief in the parched hills. A mosque’s plaintive afternoon call to prayer rose from the valley, and then a second mosque joined with its tinny invocation, each answering the other in a discordant refrain. David never tired of the muezzin’s haunting song; it always made him see his exotic surroundings anew.
He crisscrossed the valley before climbing to the Old City’s towering buttresses. Soldiers stood sentry on the ramparts overlooking the sickle-shaped Jaffa Square where countless Easter pilgrims flocked across the cobblestones: robed Jesuits, burnoosed Coptics, Greek widows in black dresses and knee-high stockings. Jewish families—the fathers in shiny black suits and mothers in floppy hats—hurried in the direction of the Western Wall before sunset and the start of Shabbat. Off to one side, Russian men, sprawled over stone benches, kept up a lively chatter drinking vodka from soda cans and blearily contemplating sex with every passing female.
David ducked into the tented Arab market where vendors displayed honey-drenched sweets painstakingly layered and colored pistachio green. Shopkeepers tempted him with their racks of cheap souvenirs. No charge for looking they entreated, offering him charms, ceramics and T-shirts that read Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you. Soon he reached Damascus Gate. For the second time that day women were rolling up their bright carpets and packing away their baskets of sage, mint and prickly-pear apples. As David started up the steps, a beggar lifted both amputated wrists to him and he stuffed a bill into her cup.
Her blessings followed him all the way up the broad steps to Salah Edeen Street.
The tinkling bell roused Issa who had dozed off in his chair. He jumped up, spilling his forgotten newspaper onto the floor. “Ahlen, David,” he said picking up the pages.
“Keef halik?” David asked.
They shook hands.
“You will take a tea?” Issa offered.
“If it’s not a bother.”
“I will enjoy the company.”
Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, David, desperate for water on a baking hot day, had stumbled into Issa’s grocery. He had instantly liked the burlap bags full of coffee beans shoved up against towering overstuffed shelves; and Issa, he discovered, was an affable and willing talker—attributes David-the-journalist had learned to appreciate. “I saw you on the street today,” he mentioned while Issa busied himself with the tea. “Was that Nadia’s father with you?”
“It seems he is always visiting, and this is Easter week,” Issa complained. “What will I do?”
“Convert? Or believe in two gods?”
“It is not so easy to exchange one god for another.” Issa carried their tea glasses to the counter. “There were more troubles at the mosque today, but of course you already know that.”
David sipped his tea. “Your president’s speech didn’t help.”
“The people don’t need the President to tell them they should be angry. Do you know what they did in Ramallah last night?”
“The press wasn’t invited.”
“They arrested every student from Gaza to send them back ‘home’! Why aren’t they ‘home’ in Ramallah? Now my son is scared the soldiers will come for him.”
David said, “But your family is not from Gaza.”
“Try to explain that to a frightened nine-year-old.”
“It keeps getting more complicated, doesn’t it?”
“Certainly more complicated to make a living,” Issa agreed wearily. “With God’s help, tomorrow will be better, but sometimes I am afraid that in the Holy Land even God cannot help. Perhaps you are right, David, it will take two gods to solve our problems.”
“Or a full pantheon.” David placed his empty glass on the counter. “In the meantime, I’ll go and pray to the only god who halfway recognizes me.”
“Pray to all of them,” Issa encouraged him, “and maybe one will be listening.”
Jakov was pinning a skullcap to his thick auburn curls when the telephone rang. He caller IDed it, and shouted, “I’ll get it.” He picked it up. “Hello, Yitzak,” he said.
“I hope you haven’t started supper yet,” Ben-Ami growled. Even at his friendliest the Chief of Staff sounded angry.
“Leah is just putting it on the table.”
“I heard you had some scuffles yesterday.”
“Some of the students refused to get off a bus until a round of tear gas put a quick end to their solidarity.”
“The boss is so fed up with the situation,” Ben-Ami confided. “He may reoccupy even if the Americans do jerk his chain so hard that he lands in Washington.”
“Let the Americans try to live with rockets landing in their back yards every night.”
“We’re moving some tanks your way in case they’re needed. That’s your shtick, Jakov. How would you like to be running tread marks in the desert again?”
“Leah would shoot me before another Palestinian had a chance to try.”
“I’m calling about Mishe,” the Chief of Staff abruptly changed the subject.
Jakov swallowed hard and said, “That was fast intelligence.”
“We have to know our enemies.”
“He would be ashamed to hear you say that.”
“He’s gone too far with this Steering Committee thing.”
“He’s got a right—”
“I know he’s got a right, goddamnit!” Ben-Ami shouted. “He’s got a right to a lot of things and he can thank his country for that. He’s also your son, and that’s giving legitimacy to the peace movement whether you agree with it or not.”
“He’s still finding himself.”
“He’ll come around eventually,” Jakov replied more confidently than he felt.
“He’s living at home, order him to quit!”
“I would if he were under my command. Parents don’t count.”
“Kick him out of the house and he’ll come around. Look, Jakov, I love Mishe like my own son, but the boss is not going to let a bunch of peaceniks bring down his government. It could get rough.”
Leah poked her head in the bedroom just as Jakov replied, “I’ll warn him.”
“Keep your head down, too. Those Katyushas can land anywhere. Shabbat shalom.”
“Shabbat shalom.” Jakov hung up.
“Warn who about what?” Leah wanted to know.
“That was Yitzak,” Jakov replied.
“I guessed that. Warn who about what?”
“He’s upset that Mishe is on the Steering Committee.”
“I don’t like it either, but what does he have to be warned about?”
“Yitzak thinks things might get rough.”
“Rough? Sometimes I wonder about you and the way you talk. How much rougher can things get? Every day there’s another bomb or a rocket attack or God knows what. It’s beginning to feel like Lebanon.”
“It will never be Lebanon.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because we won’t let it. Now let’s go eat before the food gets cold.”
Leah put a hand on his chest. “I don’t want you and Mishe arguing tonight. My nerves can’t take it.”
“I’m not planning to argue unless he starts.”
“I don’t care who starts it, I don’t want an argument. Promise me.”
“What if he starts?”
“Okay. I promise.”
“Thank you.” Leah turned to leave.
“Is that all I get for a promise?”
She let him pull her into a kiss that became unexpectedly passionate. “That can wait,” she said.
“I promise.” Then she stepped into the hallway shouting, “Mishe! Dinner!”
Jakov followed his wife to the dining room draping a prayer shawl over his shoulders.
“Mishe!” Leah called again. “I swear that boy lives in a different world. Mishe!”
Mishe, with ear buds dangling from his hand, opened his bedroom door and asked, “Is dinner almost ready?”
“We’re waiting on you,” his father said.
He came down the hall turning off the lights. “Why didn’t somebody call me?”
“Mom called you, but you were listening to music,” Rachel, his younger sister, accused him.
“No I wasn’t, Miss Smartie Pants. I was watching a movie.”
“No it’s not. I watch movies for my job.”
Leah, lighting the tall candles, admonished, “No arguing tonight. We have the rest of our lives for that.”
They formed a circle around the table: Jakov taking his wife and daughter’s hands and looking over the breathless flames at Mishe. His chest swelled with loving pride for his beautiful family; for the moment he could almost forgive his son for his treasonous politics. Jakov bowed his head and prayed,
We praise You, O Lord our God, king of the universe,
who has sanctified us by Your commandments,
and enjoined us to kindle the Sabbath lights.
Jakov had learned the prayers from his father, and if he recited them without paying attention, one of Marek’s stray Yiddish phrases often slipped out; but tonight, he spoke carefully when he bestowed blessings on each of them: Mishe, tall like him, with the same unruly red curls; Rachel, sixteen, the same full-lipped, almond-eyed beauty as her mother; and Leah, the enchantress who had stolen his heart on a desert beach, the candlelight revealing the first streaks of grey in her black hair.
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord lift up His countenance towards you and give you peace.
The raw smells of too many people living too close together hit Mohammed square in the face when he opened the door to Fadil’s building. Futilely cupping his hand over his nose, he bounded up the three flights of chipped concrete stairs gagging from the stench of the communal toilets on the landings. He rapped impatiently on a door and Fadil swung it open so abruptly that he nearly tumbled into the apartment.
“The kid’s right on time,” Fadil greeted him, and clapping the boy’s back brought him into the room. Rami and Majed sat cross-legged on the floor sending up cigarette smoke that trailed out the only window. They exchanged Salaam aleikums and touched their hearts.
Instinctively Mohammed’s gaze fell on the opposite wall where his brother, under a green Hamas banner, stared out from his place in Fadil’s gallery of martyrs—all photographs of young men with brooding eyes and solemn mouths so closely resembling each other that they unmistakably belonged to the same tribe. Suad’s eyes seemed to follow him as he joined the others on the floor.
“Majed was telling us what happened to his brother last night,” Rami told him.
“Fuck if the Israelis didn’t herd them like animals into buses,” Majed picked up his story, “and then they had the balls to shoot tear gas at them when they didn’t get off fast enough. A can hit Ahmad right here”—Majed indicated a spot close to his eye—“and it’s a big cut. He’s lucky he wasn’t blinded.”
“Humdulilah,” the others murmured.
“He won’t like having that scar though,” Majed added.
They all knew he wouldn’t. Majed’s brother was too vain and too much a playboy. But Mohammed wanted his scar. He wanted to pin scars to his body like badges. Scars for taking revenge against the soldier for murdering his brother. Scars he would gather one-by-one like the flowers he picked in the fields to drop on his brother’s grave.
Fadil reached behind a greasy curtain and pulled two green bundles off a shelf. “Our brothers in Egypt have done well,” he reported with a smile wide enough to reveal his gold tooth buried in his beard. “Semtex,” he identified it. “Almost fifteen kilos.” He passed the bundles around, and each youth, measuring their heft, whispered Allahu akbar before passing them on. Fadil chuckled at their reverence. “We’ll strike on Easter as planned. Hakem is ready.”
“There’s a problem,” Mohammed told them. “Amin’s trucks were turned back today.”
“What’s with fucking Levy?” Majed spat out. “Mousa has a deal with him.”
“I’ll carry it out,” Rami volunteered. “They don’t patrol south of al-Burayj every night.”
Fadil snorted skeptically. “How will you get to Jerusalem? Hitchhike?”
“I can take a bus.”
“And if they ask for your ID? Once they have you, they have us all.”
“I won’t talk.”
“Until they get to your nuts.”
“I’ll go with him,” Mohammed offered.
“What, kid, you don’t have nuts?”
Mohammed joined the others in laughter though inwardly he resented their calling him kid. Sure they were older—he was only a skinny fifteen-year-old—but without him they couldn’t have carried out how many operations? Had anything he concealed on Amin’s trucks ever been discovered?
“We’ve got Mousa by his balls,” Majed reminded them. “It’s time we squeezed them. He doesn’t want his friends knowing what he’s been doing. Remind him of that. He has ways with or without Levy.”
They all looked at Mohammed, who felt especially important when Fadil touched his shoulder saying, “It would be a shame to miss this opportunity to blow some infidels to the hell they deserve.”
Suddenly Mohammed had his own important mission.
The muezzin’s nasal wail started at a nearby mosque. The cell members unfolded their cramped legs to stand side-by-side and pray. Cupping their hands they faced Mecca—and the martyrs gallery. Mohammed never cupped his hands without remembering that day when he had cupped them at his brother’s throat trying to catch his blood. He thought if he could save it they could put it back into Suad and he wouldn’t die. He had been eleven. Suad was two years older. Every day the army jeeps patrolled the camps and every day the boys threw stones at them in a ritual wherein both sides respected limits. That day something had changed. The soldiers didn’t turn back and instead pursued the boys into an alley barricaded with oil drums, trapping them between their own graffitied walls. Suad bounced a stone off the jeep’s hood in a last defiant gesture before it skidded sideways to a stop. A blue-eyed soldier in the back stood, aimed and fired. His shot echoed in the narrow street as the wounded boy spun around spurting an arc of blood into the dirt before collapsing. The soldier’s icy glare dared the other boys to throw more stones. None did, and he smirked at their cowardice as the jeep drove off.
After the other cell members concluded their prayers, Mohammed, eyes closed, remained standing. Fadil touched his shoulder and stopped his memories. Their business finished, they said their goodbyes and touched their hearts, and Mohammed—last to come—was first to go. He groped his way down the unlit stairs, stumbling on a landing where a child behind the toilet’s door fearfully asked, “What was that?”
“It’s nothing, habibti,” a woman answered, “only someone walking past. Piddle and we can leave.”
Mohammed burst from the putrid building gulping the sultry air like a fish tossed back into water. He lit a cigarette to take away the foul taste in his mouth. Thinking about his task, he blew a cocky stream of smoke at the moon struggling to rise between the irregular buildings. He’d get the Semtex across somehow and they wouldn’t call him ‘kid’ any longer.
He returned to the beach road. The sky was slate grey except for a thin red line on the horizon. A faint breeze carried the joyful wedding songs to him. Mohammed tossed aside his cigarette and decided to join the party.
“I thought you might be proud of me,” Mishe said bitterly.
“For what, aiding the enemy?” his father asked.
They had been arguing since dinner.
“For working for peace.”
“It’s enough that we have enemies, we don’t need traitors.”
“Isn’t that a bit melodramatic?”
“You don’t need to use fancy words with me,” Jakov snapped. “I know you go to college because I pay for it.”
“I’m trying to talk to you, Abba. You’ve got the power to change things.”
“That’s right. My name means something in this country, and you’re attaching it to something that I don’t believe in.”
“It’s me who’s been elected to the Steering Committee because of something I believe in. Most people can figure I’m not you.”
“I don’t like your insolence.”
“Now look who’s using fancy words.”
“I swear, Mishe, I’m tired of listening to your snide remarks.”
“You don’t like to listen to anybody. You only want to scare everybody into believing you’re right with your threats of terrorism.”
“What do you call the bomb that went off today? A threat or a reality?”
“The Palestinians were attacked while they were praying. Tomorrow the government starts building another settlement. And the list goes on. You don’t get it, do you? The terrorists exist because of the things you do. You and the government. You call me an enemy when you’re far more an enemy to Israel than I am.”
Jakov clenched his jaw. “You’ll not say that to me, not in this house, not ever.”
“Goodnight, Mama,” Rachel said pushing through the kitchen’s swing door. “Mama says to stop arguing. She says you promised.”
“We were talking,” her father said.
“We were arguing,” Mishe countered, “because Abba is fixated on security when he should be fixated on peace.”
“Two bombs in two months on the bus your mother takes all the time,” Jakov reminded him.
“And me,” Rachel inserted.
“How would you feel if one of them was killed?”
“Hmmm…” Mishe pondered. “Can I consider those cases separately?”
“You’re such a creep, Mishe.” The girl turned to her father. “I need to tell my scout troop tomorrow if I can go on Friday. Please say yes, Abba.”
“You’re not seriously thinking of letting her go, are you?” Mishe asked.
“It’s none of your business!” his sister said.
“It’s my business when my sister is going wacko religious and her parents don’t stop her because they’re wacko too.”
“I’m warning you, Mishe,” his father said. “I’m strong enough to pick you up and toss you out of this house.”
“Maybe I’ll move out.”
“Maybe you should.”
That possibility had never been spoken aloud before, and both father and son were momentarily stunned. Finally Mishe said, “Then who’d do all the stuff around here that I’m always ordered to do?” He stormed down the hall and slammed his bedroom door.
“He can be such a pig!” Rachel said.
“Don’t say that about your brother.”
“But it’s true. He thinks he knows everything. Abba?”
“You didn’t answer about Hebron.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Why is it too dangerous when I want to do something but Mishe can do whatever he wants? Besides, we’ll have a guard.”
“I’ll discuss it with your mother.”
“Can’t you two ever think separately? Anyway, you know she’ll say no unless you say yes first.”
“I know, but—”
“You always say we can’t stop living our lives.”
“I know, but—”
“I know you’re struggling with this, Abba.” Rachel looked pleadingly at him with her mother’s irresistible jade eyes. “Just say yes.”
Jakov wished it were that easy; he would’ve hugged his little pumpkin right there and said yes a thousand times. They—he and Leah—had delayed making any decision since the field trip to Hebron first came up. They wanted to encourage their daughter’s growing self-confidence, but Hebron was never risk-free. On the one hand it was a girl scout outing with an armed guard, on the other hand an easy target. It was the same debilitating balancing act that ruled every aspect of their lives. “You promise to stay with the troop and not wander off on your own?” he asked.
Rachel threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you Abba!”
“I didn’t say yes.”
“Yes you did! I’m going to call Sophie right now!”
Rachel ran off, and Jakov settled on the couch knowing he’d been out-maneuvered by his daughter once again. He hoped Leah wouldn’t be too angry. Who could guarantee that there’d be a time when it was safer? And the girl was right—he was right—they couldn’t stop living their lives.
He listened to Leah putting the silverware away. She always found an excuse to spend a few minutes alone in the kitchen; its normalcy was her mental therapy. She was Jakov’s mental therapy. Leah had shown up at a victory party after the Sinai campaign wearing the same army khakis that they all wore; only no one’s fit as well as hers. He caught one glimpse of her eyes and it was lust at first sight; and love, too, he’d claim later. She had made her way to the bar brushing off guys who hit on her when they realized she didn’t have a date, and ordered something that didn’t take much preparation—popping a beer cap—though you would never have known it by the bartender’s attentions. He played that bottle for all that it was worth, but before he’d set it down, Jakov was at Leah’s side. He had been there ever since.
Leah came out of the kitchen and flicked off the light.
Jakov reached out a hand to her. “Come join me.”
She sat beside him. “Who won tonight, Peace Warrior or War Hero?”
“It was a draw.”
“Then it must have been bloody.”
It had been, Jakov realized. He had told his son to move out. “He started it,” he defended himself.
“Listen to yourself, Jakov Levy. You sound like a ten-year-old!”
“I don’t like his new job.”
“He writes movie reviews for a student newspaper.”
“I think it’s where he’s getting his crazy ideas.”
“Maybe we should stop him from reading newspapers, too,” Leah suggested.
“You know what I mean. He’s always so sure he’s right.”
“Did you think you could be wrong about anything at twenty-two? You forget, being right looks different when you’re twenty-two.”
Jakov slipped an arm around her. “I don’t forget twenty-two, it’s when I met you.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
“I know. Kiss me like we were twenty-two again.”
Leah held her hands against his chest. “Are you crazy? There are children in the house!”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
They kissed, and her mouth opened longingly to his. “Take me to bed,” she whispered.
“It’s been a long time since a girl said that to me.”
“Try three nights ago.”
Women in Immodest Dress Are Strictly Forbidden to Enter Our Neighborhood admonished a mural covering the side of a three-story building at the edge of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim. Smaller notices pasted haphazardly on walls reminded men to cover their heads. David slipped on his skullcap as he skirted the barricades that the residents pulled into the streets at the start of Shabbat to block traffic.
Men hurried past him, their side curls swaying; among them young fathers steered their sons dressed in identical black suits and clunky shoes. Women, shaved bald and bewigged in an ancestral fashion, had gathered in doorways to gossip and eyed David curiously as he passed. He often tried to imagine the Polish shtetl where his great great grandmother had lived, and it was there, in those hushed streets where the prayerful scurried past in twilight shadows, that his imagination came to life.
David ducked through a stone arch into a synagogue rippling with men bobbing and swaying and noisily reciting prayers. He found a spot to stand, reflecting on prayer without praying, while men around him prayed so profoundly they had fallen into trances. With a sudden cry a handsome youth tossed aside his coat and raised his arms to dance. He had a scruffy beard, thick brown hands, and a sweaty shirt revealed his muscular build. Each firm step rooted him deeper in the earth; and soon other men joined him locking arms and dancing before the altar—all men of the earth reaffirming their certainty of God’s promise.
As much as David wanted to join their circle, his faith was not strong enough, and he left the synagogue to retrace his steps to the wide boulevard that divided the Jewish and Arab halves of the city. He crossed it to a rubble-filled lot where protestors held up posters proclaiming No Peace Without Security and Expand The Settlements. A soldier motioned David over and examined his passport. Handing it back he said, “You better take that off if you’re walking down this street.”
David swept off his skullcap. “Thanks. I forgot about it.”
Only two youths stood on the curb outside Damascus Gate where normally vendors would still be soliciting customers on the crowded sidewalk. Their cigarettes brightened as they inhaled. Speaking in low voices, they snickered when an army truck drove by. David descended the steps and passed through the doglegged gate. Occasional lights swaying on electric cords illuminated the Old City’s brightly-painted doors and shutters—their teal blues, forest greens, tawny roses fading into muddled shadows. The meat market smelled rank from the day’s bloody toll. He walked cautiously on the slick, uneven cobblestones, and jumped when a black cat hissed and leaped off a ledge trailing a string of yellowy fat.
David walked backwards across the cat’s path hoping to ward off bad luck.
“I think everyone wants to revisit their childhood, where they spent their early years, and where so much took place that they will always carry with them. For me that was Algiers. I had memories of it that would flash like the sun on the whitewashed walls of their origin. I yearned to see the home where I had grown up, and I wanted to confront someone, anyone, whomever I could blame for taking away so much from my parents. Because as much as I grew in Paris, they shrank, and my withered legs had to carry the weight for all of us. Of course I never expected compensation. What compensation can there be for lives not lived? For stolen memories? But I wanted to know if it had been worth it. Had someone gained so much that the expense to my family was warranted?
“Our house was in the old souk, its entrance only a simple door in the market’s passage. You would never suspect that it was the entrance to a house, nor how much was hidden behind it. I hesitated to knock. It was chilly in the shadow of the wall and I was shivering when I finally did. A moment later a man answered. He wore a simple cotton robe, frayed and patched but clean. He looked at me strangely, and I suppose I did look strange to him, a crippled, shivering European standing in his doorway.
“When I explained that I had grown up in the house, the man opened the door wide and invited me into the small courtyard. The floor was covered with blue tiles—the same blue tiles from when I was a boy. I had played games there, solitary games because I couldn’t play with the other children, not with my feet. My mother had hung birdcages in the courtyard—white cages filled with finches and canaries—and all day I would listen to their songs, or when I grew tired of my games I would open the door to the souk and watch the people go by. The birdcages, of course, were gone, and the courtyard was filled with laundry hanging in the sun.
“The man shouted an order for coffee into an open door before we sat at a small table. He told me that his father had been a leader in Algeria’s independence movement. He had been captured and tortured by the French, until he escaped, only to be injured later in a battle. His reward had been our house. That’s what the man called it, a reward. His father had died many years earlier from complications caused by his injuries but the sons still lived in the house. Three sons, each married, and each with four or five children. My family had been prosperous but our house had not been especially large, and certainly not big enough for three families. I looked around for the signs of so many people, and then I saw them everywhere: in the variety of clothes hanging on the lines, the shoes in a row at every door, the movements of curtains as the women—or I guessed them to be the women—stole glances at us.
“A boy whom the man introduced as his youngest son brought us coffee. His father scolded him for taking so long, but it was clear that the boy had taken time to wash quickly. His hair was wet and slicked down and his face looked freshly scrubbed. His robe was also patched but clean, smelling like soap and sun, and he carried our coffees on a brass tray. The cups were delicate, not the usual thick ceramic cups, and on each saucer he had placed sweets. The family was poor, and they probably had few visitors—certainly few European visitors—and I was being treated with great respect.
“Who did I expect to find in my family’s home? What had I planned to say to them? I had gone there filled with my parents’ bitterness ready to insult them because that was easy enough. At the right moment I’d have the choice phrase that forever would haunt them, nag them when they wondered if their lives had meant anything, let them know that whatever they had gained they had stolen from someone else. I wanted to take away from the sum of their lives what they had subtracted from my parents.
“I was totally unprepared for the man’s response. He expressed sorrow at the loss that my family had suffered. He took my hands in his and kissed them, and begged me to be his guest as the only meager recompense he could offer.
“Of course I did not, it was an impossible proposal. I felt awkward, and could not imagine the great clumsiness of my crippled body in that crowded household. Suddenly I felt suffocated in the courtyard with its lines of laundry and the furtive eyes at the windows. The blue tiles of my childhood lapped at my feet like water, and I thought I might slip on them and fall, or drown. A great sadness came over me, and oddly, a great relief as well. It had been many years since I had cried, but I did cry, and the man looked confused. By coming home I had crossed another threshold, though I could not articulate it, not then, and not to a stranger. I wanted to run away, but at that moment, with the tears in my eyes, it was difficult enough for me to stand. When I did, the man held out a restraining hand and said, ‘Un moment.’
“He returned in a minute holding a birdcage, one of my mother’s white birdcages. ‘Nothing else was left,’ he said, ‘only this. It was hanging there.’ He pointed to a corner. ‘I always knew someone would return. I know it is a small memory, but it’s all that I have to give.’ ‘Une petite memoire,’ he had called it. I left the man’s house holding my mother’s birdcage. I had come to think of it as that, as the man’s house, no longer my family’s.”
The day’s withering light seeped into the kitchen. Jakov sat at the breakfast table staring at its hard white surface as he would search a palimpsest waiting for answers to be revealed. What could he have done differently? What could he have done for this day never to have come? His questions conjured a host of remembrances and what-ifs, but nothing that directed him along a new path or to a different destination. Had he been too lenient with Rachel, ever-ready to please his baby girl? Or absent too long during Mishe’s growing up years, allowing seeds of rebellion to be sown? Memories, snippets of conversations, vignettes of their childhoods and teenage years intermingled and coalesced, his chronological clock suspended as Jakov wondered if things would have been different if he had said that then, or been there when, or listened better or loved more, or or or…. All these fragments, these distilled moments that take on profound meaning in hindsight were nothing more than simple stitches in life’s whole cloth, and Jakov knew that each stitch he examined would be sewn and knotted again should time’s wheel reverse itself, for the unraveling in the present could not have been seen in the past. He was shaken to his soul by the certainty that their wretched fate was the sum of naïve actions.