Friday, October 14, 2016

Reflections on War (Published in Consequence Magazine, Volume 8: Spring 2016)

(Link to magazine: http://www.consequencemagazine.org/volumes/volume-8-spring-2016)

                                                                      ~~~

            On a hot and humid August afternoon, I meander through the narrow paths of Kfar Saba’s military graveyard, my eyes sweeping the rows of the uniform bed-like tombs. I halt at the edge of Plot 5. Among the cypresses, erected tall and dark over the bright tombstones, I find Yuval Dagan and Hadar Goldin’s final resting places. Their names are engraved on pillowed headstones—the two buried side by side.
            As I crouch by the graves, the title of Tim O'Brien’s book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, floats in my mind. Dagan, who was twenty-two years old, had died in July 2014. Goldin was twenty-three when he was killed later that same summer in August. Both were casualties of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Both lived in Kfar Saba, my hometown. Gazing at their names, last year’s war throbs in my memory.
                                   
            On a Monday afternoon last July, I heard a strange cry. At first I thought it was a gleeful child, then I thought the child must be in distress, and then I didn’t know what to think. I rushed out to my porch, leaned over the metal banister, and scanned the street. The squeals continued from the right. I bent forward, the banister pressing against my abdomen, when from around the corner darted a middle-aged woman—a doleful stout man supporting her gently by the elbow—bawling and slapping her face with both hands, a small black handbag swaying by its strap from the crook of her other elbow.
            “Why, why, why,” she cried. “I wish I was dead, I wish I was dead.”
            Two young IDF soldiers—pallid, mouths agape—scurried behind the couple, and the four disappeared into the next-door building.
            “What’s going on?” I asked a man who stood in the street.
            “I think their son was killed in the war,” he replied in a thick voice.
            I thought: this mother will never be happy again. Not in a real way. These parents are now separated from the rest of us—to join the Family of the Bereaved. 
            Driving by the military graveyard that evening, I glimpsed a tight knot of people beneath a large white marquee where my neighbour, Yuval Dagan, was being buried. Lit from within, the tent floated in the dimness. Dozens milled around. I thought again of the mother; the grief that must fill her to the rim, flowing in tidal waves and uncontrolled bursts. And the years stretching ahead.
            Sooner or later this war will end, I thought as I drove away. Conclusions, reprimands, rewards, and denial will be expressed by army officials, politicians, the media, and the general public. The living will go on living, leaving the fallen behind; remembrance will not breathe life into their remains.
            I was glad I had no sons, but then remembered my four-year-old nephew. Yuval Dagan was once four. Then five, then seven, then.
            In the morning, piles of green plastic chairs and long folding tables were arranged in the driveway underneath my bedroom window. The shiva, a week of Jewish mourning usually spent in the mourners’ home, took on a different shape.
            At dusk, about a hundred mourners, many young soldiers among them, began assembling in the driveway to mark the start of the shiva. Chattering groups of all ages sat at the long tables covered with blue plastic tablecloths, sprinkled with soda bottles and bowls of fresh fruit. A few industrial fans laboured to disperse the heat. The driveway’s walls were hung with small Israeli flags.
            I itched to join the gathering, listen to stories about the dead young man, meet his high school friends—feel the warm embrace of a grieving community. But I didn’t quite know the family. Returning from the beach that evening, I walked by, wrapped in a towel and shedding sand, wishing to be invisible. I always found it difficult to apply the Israeli approach of embracing normalcy in the face of terror and violence.
            That week, dozens of mourners clustered together in the shared driveway, often spilling into the street. Every morning and late at night, I could hear the grievers’ prayers through my window, interrupted by the occasional yowls of alley cats carrying out their territorial feuds.
            On the following Friday, August 1st, an Israeli soldier named Hadar Goldin was kidnapped by Hamas during a fight in Rafah. That Saturday evening his family made a public appearance, their despair leaping off the television screen, pleading with the IDF to remain in Gaza until their beloved was found.
            The next day, based on evidence found in the battlefield and other considerations, the Army’s Chief Rabbi confirmed Goldin’s death. Soon it was also revealed that when Hamas militants dragged Goldin down one of their tunnels, 150 civilian Gazans had lost their lives as the IDF implemented the "Hannibal Directive.”
            Named after the Carthaginian military commander who preferred to commit suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, the order, drawn up in 1986 by a group of top IDF officers, states that at the time of a kidnapping the main mission becomes forcing the release of the abducted soldiers from their kidnappers, even if it means causing injury to the soldiers.
            It basically intends to prevent the need for prisoner exchanges, no matter the price.
            Those 150 Gazans received no warning before the army indiscriminately opened fire in a densely populated area. I suppose anyone near a kidnapping incident could get caught in the crossfire, but in that case “no matter the price” referred to the locals. A nauseating spasm sliced through my stomach. I swallowed the curses that stung my tongue. What’s the use. I imagined a future from which we would look back at the present with nostalgia and regret.
            I wished to shrink into a tiny dot, roll on the floor, and fall down a bottomless crack. To never be found. Awash with a wave of weariness, I entered my bedroom, ignoring the pieces of paper sent airborne by the fan, and flopped on the bed to stare at the ceiling, the air pulsing with the ventilator’s hum, the restful whiteness above, folds of paint ruffled its surface, clouds formed, then some flowers, a bird took flight.
            I closed my eyes to a curtain of black.
            When I was eight my mom told us to draw the black curtains over the windows at night. My dad wasn’t around. None of the dads were around. When I was eight, my younger sister and I would rush down the stairs to the bomb shelter when the sirens went off. My aunt, who lived in the apartment above us, happened to paint the shelter shortly before. She covered the walls with babyblue clouds, large flowers, butterflies, and birds.
            We lived on the second floor of a four-story building. There was a thrill of excitement for my sister and me when the sirens went off; we dashed down the stairs with tingling feet. We sat in our beautiful shelter, read our books, ate our snacks—waiting for the second alarm, the one that told us we could go home.
            Mostly worried we’d run out of reading materials, my sister and I did not know that Dad was driving trucks loaded with ammunition, nor that the enemy was closing in on us from all sides. Surrounded by cheerful images dimly lit by the bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, Mom was the only solid presence in that underground world.            
            Dark and dank, that year Yom Kippur stretched to no end.



            The dappled afternoon light dances upon the tombstones in Kfar Saba’s military graveyard. A long hose snakes out of a field faucet; multi-coloured watering cans dangle from a five-pronged vertical rack; flourishing plants and personal mementoes carefully placed on each gravestone—the dead soldiers certainly receive meticulous care.
            For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
            Wars are fought aboveground; perhaps the Palestinian and Israeli dead fuse underground.
            The first Intifada broke out soon after I had moved to Jerusalem to attend college, hitting the Israeli capital the hardest; people were knifed in public spaces almost daily. The bus I took to school, crossing Arab neighbourhoods on the east side of town, was often stoned. Once, a rock hit the window right beside me. I jumped out of my skin, deeply grateful I’d been too lazy to open the window for air, as I usually did. Peering through the dark, I glimpsed two Arab schoolboys glaring at the passing bus. During my years in Jerusalem I developed a habit of looking over my shoulder whenever I walked in the street—a nervous tendency I haven’t completely shaken off to this day.
            Then in October 2000, while driving on the highway between Tel Aviv and Haifa with a friend, heading to a peace festival, we inadvertently stumbled into the second Intifada. Redirected by black-clad police, I gasped for air, my heart gripped tight, as an angry mob of Arabs descended from their village uphill, clasping heavy rocks.  
            I sometimes wonder: would things have turned out differently if the fight was not over such a tiny piece of land? When I was young, people were saying everyone here would coexist peacefully if we were as large and scantly populated as Texas. I’ve tried to imagine both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sprawled over that vast faraway land. All I could conjure up was an image of an arid landscape dotted with cattle and giant oil pumps.
            I suppose some struggles belong only where they take place, yet I wonder what sort of future this crazed land might hold for my nephew.
            Box me up and ship me home.

            Pebbles are strewn upon Dagan and Goldin’s marble beds, as is the Jewish tradition. I shift rocks of various hues, joining them into a heart, one on each grave, and wonder if these two young men knew each other. I glance at the patch of grass beside Goldin’s grave, the last in the row, drawing an imaginary box in the vacant plot. I think of the one who’d someday occupy this yet unclaimed space.
            Perhaps it will be filled with someone I know!—the thought jolts me. 
            Then I think of the parents.





Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Air

I consume the many miles blindly,
I know not, I feel not;
a young woman of a fuzzy mind,
an almost crushed spirit—
of sullen air.

Blown from East to West,
brought here by the winds,
I travel over water.
The ocean blurring beneath me
as I spear through the air head first,
pointing at the furthest land.

A frail and frightened creature,
caged as I am;
caged and airless in this new land.
I remain.
Year and another year.
And hope is much like a broken
television; turned on,
the dim screen fails 
to produce an image
of any clarity.
Peering into the dim monitor,
year and another year,
I remain.
Here.

My wings gain strength,
by and by, until they grow
large enough to break through bars.
I tiptoe into new air.
Into crisp air.
Open air. 
I begin to breathe;
small swigs at first,
deeper gulps at last.

In this new land. 
In this new air.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Angels and Scars; Scars or Angels

In a parallel existence, we are pure-white
beings, flying abreast, tips of wings
meet ever so slightly.

Midflight, I glimpse your scar;
the sweet pink, the stitched
skin that must have settled by now.

And we glide over
valleys and crags, meadows
carpeted green, dotted by crisp
lakes and red-roofed farms.

I have my scars too—carried
in the pocket of my breast
bone; kept warm under the feathers.

Riding a gale, or the golden breeze,
heading onward—always onward—we
are angels nonetheless.
No: angels for our scars.

Spreading wide wings, we swoop
down for the night; a hidden branch to nestle
close, head against shoulder.
The air soon softens into rhythmic tunes:
serenading crickets, courting bullfrogs,
the occasional hoot of an owl.

And we fall asleep to the sounds.


Friday, June 17, 2016

Nothing More (published in Canyon Voices Issue 13 spring 2016)

(Link to magazine: tinyurl.com/z5crgql)


Do not bury me in your ground.
Do not cover me with clods of earth and mourn
my departure.
Do not put me in the cursed soil, where soldiers’ boots 
loomed over my great-grandmother.
(Her namesake, I carry her ashes in my bones; she holds
no grave, to remind you.)
I do not wish to lie under a shattered headstone, my name
swastika-sprayed.
Do not entomb me in the burning land that bore me;
the shrapnel-soaked earth will grind my rotted flesh,
the thunder of war will disturb my final rest.
Do not cage me in a coffin; the tree should remain
standing in the forest, not house my remains.
Do not shove me in a burial-drawer; build a school instead. 
A home for the newly wed. 
Have flowers rise from the dirt.

I will be among the shrubs, within the wings
of an early morning breeze.
For dust am I.

Nothing more.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Last Vase (published in Canyon Voices Issue 13 Spring 2016)

(Link to magazine - tinyurl.com/z5crgql)


Safe from the high winds, the fallen walls, the sheets of sky collapsing all around—afoot, he carried it in his arms, wrapped in an old coat. It was a fine relic; the last vase of its kind to have survived the turmoil intact.
           
The earth shook every so often, objects rained at random from all directions at once, balls of fire flared from underneath. Bright and warm like springtime blossoms, he thought, and hugged the vase closer to his chest.
           
Fewer people ran in the streets these past few days. He saw none today. Could these ruins be called streets? Their ashen breath pushed through his pores. Even the scrawny alley cats had vanished.
           
Through the shadows he slipped, taking cover when danger loomed. Though most shelters could not be trusted.
           
The air has been murky for weeks. The once familiar city had turned into a labyrinth. He might have already crossed it from east to west, north to south, a few times over. Or has he been circling the same neighbourhood? Whenever he found any water pooled in the wreckage, he would suck the drops dry. He had yet to find any today.
           
Exhausted, he ducked into a pit and lay on the debris-littered ground; eyelids shut before his head met the ground, the vase cradled within his emaciated, curled-up body. His once spotless suit was now but rags splotched grey and brown, loosely hanging on him.
           
Had he fallen into deep sleep or dozed off for a few minutes, he could not tell upon awakening. He peered out from under the struck-down tree that roofed over the pit. It is possible that nobody beyond these veils of acrid smoulder had endured, he thought.            
           
Was the vase still unharmed? He unwrapped it with a feathery touch. In the dim light his eyes followed the intricate, bejewelled ornaments. He brushed his fingers across the silky design, lingering on the embossed mythological creature, half-bird half-beast, whose name escaped him. As smooth as a baby’s cheek, he smiled, and in one piece indeed. Twelve inches tall, adorned with cultural motifs, its value was immeasurable. Recalling its former place atop a glass-protected shelf in the softly lighted hall, he knew keeping it out of harm's way was now his responsibility.

But for what purpose? he wondered.

An earthworm pulsated beside him. He scooped it up. The creature hung from both sides of his open palm, tiny clumps of earth clung to its moist, plump body. Perhaps life underground remained unaffected, he shook his head in amazement. Tickled by the worm’s wriggling, a chuckle escaped his lips. The sound took him by surprise.
           
Once on the ground again, the worm squirmed away in a sinuous movement. He followed it with his eyes until it was gone. Sunk in thought for a long hour after, deep furrows formed on his brow.
           
He finally rewrapped the vase with his coat and crawled out, rising to his feet when he reached the open air. He looked up, trying in vain to trace a patch of blue sky, even a hint. Am I trapped in someone’s dream? he wondered before he turned to resume his flight.

Where to, he knew not.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Strays (excerpt from a fictional memoir in progress)



          Under different circumstances the six of us—Irit, Nomi, Yifat, Tali, Gitit, and me—would be unlikely friends, but our pet was a social adhesive. We’d sit on the floor in our room, evening falling outside the wide open door, the dog running from one girl to another, grabbed for a quick squeeze here and there, giving off screechy baby barks when she got overwhelmed with attention and glee. We didn’t know where she spent her nights, or wandered off during the day while we were caged in the stuffy classroom, being taught even stuffier subjects by Hadas and Dorit, our two instructors who made me think of Laurel and Hardy, only plump Hadas was far shorter than willowy Dorit.

            In spite of their status, our instructors also feared Discipline Officer Shemesh, who grew hungrier for reprimanding and fining outlaws when his hunts went unsuccessful. No wonder he wanted the base’s dogs and pigeons destroyed; the animals would have doubtless received a lesser sentence if they were within his jurisdiction.
            He’d have them line up in threes across the marching yard, un-shoed paws and bony feet against cement, standing at stiff attention. “No shifting feathers, no twitching whiskers,” he’d snap, his eyebrows linked into a dark frown. “Tails and wings neatly tucked under—bird mites and dog fleas form your own line!—now everyone turn to the right, and: Left- Right-Left, Left- Right-Left, Left …”
            Alas, many would soon stray in the wrong direction, the lines would entangle, (not all creatures know their right from their left), the poor bird-mites, too tiny for their own good, would be trampled by the yawning Great Dane mix, three startled pigeons would flap their wings when the brown mongrel would crash into them, the oblivious fleas would bound onward regardless, and puppy—confused by the cries and complaints rising from all direction—would be unable to restrain her wagging tail and screeching yelps.
            She’d keep screwing up—morning drills, and other Rules and Regulations—and with the rapidly accumulating violations, she’d end up in military jail. She’d befriend everyone, even the guards would be enchanted by her irresistible personality, but being restricted to a small cell she’d rebel, I’m certain of that. Decline the food, wouldn’t even march to the dining hall with the rest of the prisoners. And would most likely refuse to learn the structure of the Israeli Air Force. After all, becoming a squadron operations-room sergeant was not her career choice.
            “Won’t you do your shoes?” her cellmate would ask, brush in hand.
            “Not today,” she’d reply. “The rule is, shoe polishing tomorrow and yesterday, but never today.” And she’d rebury her head in her book while the other inmates would keep fussing with that pongy black polishing-paste—purchased with their measly military wage—shining shoes they’d never be caught wearing in civilian life.
            On the way to the drill plaza, an island of concrete slabs set in the middle of the sand, stood a lone fire hydrant, dribbling from the mouth. A few water drops smeared on the Goldas gave the same fantastic impression as hours of shining. Officer Shemesh was fooled by the effect each time. His hawkish eyes failed to detect her sham polish amid the shimmers.
            But by the time theses clumsies—named after Golda Meir’s favourite orthopaedic footwear back in the day—would dry and regain their usual drabness, they’d be in deep sleep under my bunk until the following day, and my relived feet luxuriated in sandals as I was yawing in class, half listening to Hadas reiterating the types of Air Force squadrons: combat, choppers, and transportation. “In a descending order of prestige,” she added laughingly.
            Not that it mattered much, but I wondered where I’d end up at the end of this two-month course; I was eager to bid everyone goodbye, and move on.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Damned (poem published in Canyon Voices Issue 13 spring 2016)

(Link to magazine: tinyurl.com/z5crgql)

Damn them all;
damn the fire in their eyes, and the guns in their hands,
damn their rocket launching, bomb dropping, baby killing,
and shameless propaganda.
Damn their refusal to put down hate, extinguish
anger, and discard this hell.
Like puppets in a tragic theatre, they play their roles
to the utmost and without fail
over and over and over.
And damn, over again.
Self-righteousness spewing from their mouths in torrents,
their fingers always pointing away.
Seizing land not theirs, killing brothers not theirs,
demolishing houses not theirs,
sending children not theirs to explode in crowded markets.
Why, bellows the shaken earth; why, echo the missile-torn skies.
Stop, begs the mother.
March on! command the generals.

Damn them all!
I turn to flee the burning soil, leave behind the rumbling cannons.
Damn the hopelessness and blindness, the waste and the malice,
I yell as I run.
Damn all these …
The mother’s pleading eyes slow my steps.
I halt.
I cannot.
Damn, but I cannot.


This smouldering earth is my earth too.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Africans, White City, and a Pint of Guinness (published in Canyon Voices Issue 13 Spring 2016)

 (Link to magazine - tinyurl.com/z5crgql)


“A pub in Tel Aviv,” I type into a fresh document that has been staring at me like a pristine canvas stretched in its wooden frame. Though it’s Friday night, a popular evening for the locals to go out, it’s only six o’clock, and save for a handful of customers the place is empty.
            There is something informal, almost improvised in the local pub scene. I scrutinise my surroundings, trying to pinpoint the causes for this vague notion. It might be the unassuming furniture. Yes, that and the casual atmosphere. Take for example the young man with tight braids raining down from his head like the supple branches of a willow tree. Straddled on his stool as if horse riding, he nonchalantly angles himself toward an older gentleman two stools to his left, who is slowly imbibing his beer with a gaze fixed on the large plasma screen. Now the older man turns toward his new mate and a chat ensues.
            My eyes wander to the door through which another man, in tandem with a thin and long-limbed woman, a headscarf tied over her short hair, walks in and stops by the dreadlocks guy. The two greet each other in a ritual of arms and palms, Dreadlocks introduces the newcomers to his freshly gained pal, and all four move to a table near me—uncomfortably near—and so my eyes travel back to the bar, where I find an additional point of distinction: the bottle display is not crammed full, as if the booze is just an excuse for a social gathering. In Europe and the U.S. the shelves overflow with alcohol, and the patrons usually keep to themselves. Common to pubs everywhere, a pleasant wave of wood and hops reaches my nostrils, awakens my taste buds.
            “Nice computer!” I am startled out of my ruminations by a young woman who plants herself in the chair beside me, eying my laptop. A bright smile illuminates her face from within, and her ebony curls fall onto the table in long strands, spreading a rush of flowery perfume. The white summer dress shines against her dark skin. No jewellery or make up, and none are needed; she wears her youth and effervescent demeanour like diamonds. I push away my envy.
            “I want to get one just like that,” she conveys, “but they’re crazy expensive.”
            “They’re not cheap,” I reply.
            “Your keyboard has English characters,” she realises. “You got it abroad?”
            “Yes, I live abroad.”
            “Oh, lucky you!” she says, then adds without extending her hand, “I’m Maya.”
            I introduce myself as well.
            “I really like your laptop,” she repeats and leans in, peering over my shoulder. “Oh, wait, you’re writing our chat, translating it from Hebrew to English.”
            “I am.”
            She leans back in her chair, a thin crease forms on her brow. “But why?”
            “It’s a writing exercise, to sit in a public space, describe what I see and, record conversations I have or overhear.”           
            “Oh, cool,” she says with a smileless nod, clearly baffled.
            “I’m a creative writing student,” I explain, “practicing during summer vacation so I won’t get rusty.”
            “Ah, okay, I get it.” She glances around. “What’s to write about here? Not very interesting.”
            “I would love to write about you,” I say in the soft tone of invitation.
            “Really?” A spark is lit in her dark brown eyes, and her curls bounce a little. “Let me get us some drinks, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” She hesitates. “Well, almost anything,” she adds with a blush.
            She points at my empty glass, asking, “What are you having?”
            “That was Diet Sprite,” I admit, sensing she won’t approve of my virgin beverage.
            “How about some beer?” she asks, I nod, and she adds with a simper, looking pleased with herself, “On the house, the barman is my boyfriend.”
            I follow Maya with my eyes. The bartender’s face shines when he notices her at the counter. He’s a tall man, probably a few years older than her, with a light brown ponytail brushing his nape, and a slightly receding hairline. His blue tank top—another noted difference between pubs here and elsewhere—reveals a large tattoo adorning his right shoulder: flower, butterfly? I can’t tell from this distance.
            With smooth and flowing gestures he seems at ease with himself and his surroundings. Handing Maya two spume-dripping pints he brims at her the way boyfriends smile at their girlfriends, with that sweetness on their lips and tenderness in their eyes, and she sends him an air-kiss in return.
            “Guinness!” Maya announces, banging the glasses on the table. “I like my beer dark and strong, like my men,” she adds with a giggle.
            I smile as if it is the first time I’ve ever heard this phrase.
             She takes a swig from her glass, sweeps the foamy moustache off her upper lip with the back of her hand, and says, “So, what do you want to know?”
            “Anything,” I answer, eyeing my beer; the last time I had a Guinness I woke up with a throbbing hangover the following morning.
            “Well,” she opens and pulls herself up in the chair; her shoulders push back, and her chin lifts up a smidgen higher. “I’m about to finish my army service in a week. In fact, I’m on my discharge vacation.”
            “What do you … what did you do in the army?”
            “I served in the Air Force,” she says, looking at me as if to examine my reaction, then goes on in a speedy flow of excitement, which my fingers cannot follow, describing the thrills of working alongside pilots in a squadron’s operations-room.
            When she breaks for a breath I get a chance to say, “That’s remarkable! It was a long time ago, but I too was an operations-room sergeant in a squadron. I’ve actually started writing a memoir about my time in the army, and maybe—“
            “Seriously?” she asks with widening eyes.
            “Well, so far I just sketched an outline, but—“
            “No, I mean, did you really serve as an operations-room sergeant?”
            “Yes. Why?” 
            The air seems to be seeping out of her. She hugs her beer with both hands, eyes lowered.             “Well,” Maya says, her voice just above whisper. “I wasn’t exactly what I just said.”
            “Oh.”
            “I’m sorry … you seemed … so interested, and I wanted to give you a good story. Nobody is ever interested in me.”
            “The guy in the bar is,” I remind her.           
            “We’ve been dating for only a month,” she says in slight dismissal, glancing in his direction. “They’re always excited in the beginning, aren’t they?” I murmur in sympathy, and she looks at me with doe-like eyes. “But you, you were interested in me, know what I mean?”           
            “Yes, I think I do,” I say.
            “Just for the record,” she says with an index finger pointing up, “I did serve in the Air Force in some boring office.”
            “Okay. And just for the record, being an operations-room sergeant isn’t as glorious as one might imagine. It was mostly clerical work, and the pilots were outright annoying. But why won’t you tell me something else, like where you live?”
            A tentative smile spreads on her lips, then quickly shifts to a playful smirk. “Can I tell you where I want to live?” she asks.
            “Sure.” I know people’s fantasies are just as telling as their biography, and often more.
            With head tilted sideways, eyes half-closed, she says, “North Tel Aviv, looking at the Mediterranean from a penthouse in one of those fancy tower apartment buildings; every morning I wake up, open the windows, breathe the beautiful smell of the sea, listen to the seagulls, catch some sunshine, and feel super happy.”
            “I doubt all those who live in expensive towers are happy,” I comment, disappointed with her clichĂ© choice of accommodation. “But why won’t you tell me where you’re actually from? I bet it’s far more interesting.”
            Maya shrugs, looking a tad deflated again. “I bet it isn’t,” she slices out the words through her teeth. “South Tel Aviv, where all the Africans live.”
            The resentful way she pronounces “Africans” makes me cringe; I dread where this conversation might lead, though her reply also piques my curiosity.
            “I read a lot about that situation,” I say with the lightest tone I can muster. “I’d be happy to hear about it from a local.”
            “It’s awful,” she grumbles. Her shoulders droop. Her face turns sombre. “I know you can find them all over the city, even sleeping in parks, but many of them live in my neighbourhood, which wasn’t great before they came, and now it’s even worse, much worse.” She draws a deep breath and takes a mouthful of beer, neglecting to wipe the foam off her lips.
            “You know,” she carries on, “we live in slums, houses falling apart, lots of folks unemployed, some kids go to bed hungry. We just don’t need those Africans, they’re not our problem, even if they had it bad wherever they came from, and most of them aren’t refugees as they claim, they just want to find jobs, but we were born here, we deserve the jobs, not them.” She briefly pauses for air. “Not to mention all the assaults on women that’s been happening. My parents always call me when I’m out in the evening to make sure I’m okay, and they send one of my brothers to fetch me like I’m a little girl. Those people illegally come into our country and then attack us?” She shakes her head. “No, no, they should go back to where they came from!”
            Oh my, she is as I feared. Though her views are not uncommon in this neck of the woods, it is my first time to converse with someone from her camp. Ironically, during Israel’s early days droves of Jews were brought here from Muslim counties, and Maya’s family was most likely among them. Alas, as soon as these Sephardic Jews arrived in the Holy Land the dominant population of East European Jews perceived them as culturally inferior and even a safety threat. I wonder if my grandfather, who emigrated from Romania in the early 1930s, was among the discriminators.
            Maya gulps the rest of her beer. I take a hesitant sip from mine while she signals to her boyfriend, who appears at our table with a generous smile, a fresh pint of Guinness for Maya, and a friendly nod for me. I somehow get the impression he isn’t the talkative type, but being a bartender he’s probably a good listener. I take another swallow while I wait for Maya to continue, surprised to find myself enjoying the beer’s rich heaviness with a hint of coffee flavour. Maya sinks into thought, and I give my fingers a break. Besides, nothing she is saying is new to me. I resist my desire to reply to her accusations and remind her that only about a handful of those Africans were found guilty of sexual assault, which is a relatively small number for a population of tens of thousands. But I hold my tongue and keep a straight face. I invited her to tell me her story, not to enter an argument.
            “Sorry, I … I was …” Maya finally says. “I was thinking about Baby Kako, the …“
            She stares into space again.
            “Yes, I know about her,” I say, and on intuition ask, “Are you familiar with the family?”           
            “Well, that’s the thing. They live just two streets away from us, but I never noticed them until … how terrible … what kind of monster stabs a baby in the head with scissors, and only because she’s black? Thank goodness she didn’t die, but she will never …”
            Her eyes glisten with tears as her voice fades away, and she falls silent again, face crinkling in thought. She snatches a single lock of hair, coils it around her finger, and just as absentmindedly uncoils the long curl and sets it free. She hasn’t touched her second beer yet; the thick milky froth at the crown of her glass is firm, the white and the dark holding each other in balance.
            “They say the man who did it is crazy, but I don’t know,” Maya says when she regains her composure. “There was so much talk against the Africans, even people from the government came to the neighbourhood and said terrible things about them. So maybe that man is insane, but he turned his craziness to that baby after he heard all that talk. He did say to the police he wanted to kill a black baby, didn’t he? That’s what I personally believe, but I keep it to myself. People in my neighbourhood don’t like to hear anything nice about our black neighbours.” She sighs. “That’s just the way it is, what can I do? We are squashed from all sides.” She pauses before adding, “Just like them.”
            Surprised with this U-turn, I dare ask, “Would you consider helping them somehow?”
            “I don’t know, probably not. My family won’t approve of it, anyway.”
            I say I understand, and thank her for sharing her story. She swills down her Guinness and returns the empty glass gently to the table.
            “Well,” she says and gets to her feet, “I gotta go, but it was nice talking to you and good luck with that army book.”
            I wish her the best of luck with civilian life; she thanks me with a mock salute that sends her ringlets frolicking, and slips into the gathering darkness outside.
            After Maya leaves I drink some more of my beer, hoping I won’t regret it tomorrow, and think about the demographic shifts in Israel since I had left in the early ‘90s.
            Having grown up here during the ‘70s, the only black people I knew of were American NBA players recruited by Israeli basketball teams. These extraordinary athletes boosted our national pride and were naturally admired. In fact, one of them lived on my street and was the only black man I had met as a child. He was married to an Israeli woman, and they had a daughter who was a little younger than me. With her golden-brown complexion and a wave of soft Afro the colour of cafĂ© au lait, she was unusual-looking, but as far as I can recall the neighbourhood kids didn’t treat her any differently. I was curious about her, but kept a shy distance.
            From 2006, until very recently, about sixty thousand undocumented Africans, mostly Sudanese and Eritreans, had entered Israel by way of the Sinai Desert, often falling victim to cruel smugglers. By and large Israeli authorities have been regarding them as infiltrators, and refuse to consider the vast majority of their asylum requests. More recently, a few thousands have been confined to a detention camp in the depths of the Negev Desert.
         
The pub, by now teeming with chattering folks, has turned stuffy. I tuck a tip under my half empty glass, click shut my laptop, slip it into the backpack, and walk out to the refreshing dusk outside, marvelling at the magenta-tinted sky peeking between heads of buildings.
            I round the corner, enter Rothschild Boulevard, and amble along its sandy central strip lined with ficus trees, shikma in Hebrew. The long arms of entwined branches hold up crowns of green bouquets; the curly canopy of the old trees a fresh breath of air in this dense city. I move my fingers on a heavily veined trunk; the ropes pipe up and around toward the boughs, their skin smooth and cool against my skin. A feeble breeze plays with the treetops’ leaves. Crickets serenade with their seductive tunes in the bushes. Farther down, random clusters of concrete picnic-tables with no diners, and  a fenced pond, rich with green as if transplanted from a different landscape, houses well-fed goldfish.
            Beyond the ficus trees, along either side of the street, refurbished Bauhaus buildings stand proud; some are elegant, others flashy. Named The White City, Tel Aviv, other than this area, is rather grey. Yet with these gorgeous residencies, the city has been reinventing itself. Alas, rendered unaffordable for most locals, these abodes are mostly owned by wealthy foreigners who reside here only partially. The spacious rooms are vacant more often than not; the sizeable windows remain shut.
            But not all of this street’s early 20th century architecture has been restored: some buildings are tarnished with car fumes; others have their crumbling walls covered with graffiti. A worn out awning shields a grimy second story porch.
            The posh and the fatigued live shoulder to shoulder.
            It’s no coincidence the social justice movement has sprouted right here during the summer of 2011, choosing the French Revolution’s emblematic date of 14 July to mark its kick off. Though the municipal authorities had dismantled the movement’s encampment a few short months after its inception, now, three years later, the ghosts of that community are anything but gone.
            As I snail down the lane, the shadowy outline of that long-gone tent city rises in my path. I hear fragments of heated discussions—accompanied by energetic hand gestures—in the improvised living rooms, sofas and all, scattered under the trees. Traces of hope and rage, mixed with smells of sweat and outdoor cooking, move in the air in flashing waves.
            Among the inhabitants were residents of South Tel Aviv, demanding improvement to their forsaken neighbourhood.
            The bitter echoes of the dismay that followed this remarkable summer reverberate along the avenue, and far beyond, to this day. A probable correlation between the Occupy Movement in the U.S. and this Israeli movement had been pointed out. The latter most likely inspired the former, as it preceded it.

I see him before he notices me, sitting on a bench, his long legs stretched forward. I let go of my backpack’s left strap, hug the bag with my right arm, and glance around. Rotten luck, nobody’s anywhere near. I could turn around, or cut into a side street … no, that might prove counterproductive. Well, I’ll just put on my combatant demeanour. As Maya mentioned, you can see them everywhere around the city, so no big deal, just keep a steady pace.
            As I pass him, I realise he is looking at me, and my eyes can’t help but meet his. I issue a tiny smile and keep walking, hoping my steps seem poised.
            “You Israelis think we Africans bad people,” I hear him complain behind my back.
            I stop and slowly swing around.
            “I beg your pardon?” I say.
            “You hear me,” he replies, turning his face away from me.
            “Well, I don’t know you, but I don’t think you’re a bad person,” I say.
            He nods with exaggerated motions. “You do, you do, all of you.”
            “No, really, I don’t.” I take a step in his direction. “Look, I know about all the trouble your people have been going through. I read about it in the newspaper all the time, and I’m really sorry. I wish it was different, you don’t deserve to be treated like that.”
            “If you care, you tell government,” he says in disdain with his face still turned away.
            “Right, the government,” I sneer. “If only they had ears.”           
            His eyes meet mine again; I see a hint of amusement in the corners of his mouth.
            I take a step forward, saying, “It’s not an easy country, you know. Even for Israelis.”
            “Better than my country,” he mutters, then asks, “You no like it here?”
            I suppose for him Israel is a version of the Promised Land.
            “Well, I don’t live here, I’m just visiting,” I reply.
            His brow springs up. “Where you live?”           
            “America.”

            His face softens as he gets up from the bench. Glancing at my left hand, he grins.
            “No husband?”
            Caught off guard I say, “No.”
            “Ah,” he exclaims, his eyes glimmer with warmth, then narrow when he inquires, “boyfriend?”
            “Eh … well …” Hesitant to lie, I search for an elegant way out.
            ”You marry me and take me to America,” he announces, taking a confident step forward. “I make you very happy.”
            I observe him more closely. Not a bad looking guy: pleasant features, broad shoulders, and that smooth coffee-tinted skin. I could be his Stella, and he will bring back my groove. Well, he’s not that much younger, but he probably has some groove for me, even if it lasts no more than five minutes.
            He looks at me and his face gives off fumes of fondness. He takes another step forward. 

            “I’m a lesbian,” I hear myself declare as I flinch back, embarrassed for my false statement, yet relieved to have found an exit.
            His face freezes for a brief moment, then twists into revulsion.
            “I no marry you!” he spits the words at me, his arm slicing through the air as if pushing me away. “You be shame to yourself!”
            Feeling obliged to defend my declaration for the sake of those it represents, I say, “There’s nothing wrong with being gay, it’s perfectly normal.”
            “No, no normal,” he retorts. “The Bible says—“
            “I know what the Bible says!” I cannot help but cut him off, my voice sharper than intended. “Do you really want to live by the Bible? You might not like all the rules and regulation in that book, you know.”
            But the exchange is clearly over; he flounces himself around and slumps into the bench facing up street. I walk away feeling ill at ease though uncertain as for what I could have done better.
            “You’re hungry?” I hear a woman’s voice behind me as I slow down to admire a particularly veined tree about ten steps from the bench. “Here’s twenty shekel for some food.”
            “I no beggar,” the African’s voice rise in indignation.
            Unable to resist the temptation, I stand in the tree’s deep shadows and eavesdrop.
            “I just want to help,” she mutters.
            “We want job, no donation!”
            “I know,” her voice turns gloomy. “I participate in the demonstrations for the asylum seekers, I volunteer with the refugee kids. I’m sorry things aren’t working out as we hoped.”           
            “Is okay.” His voice is softer now. “You are good woman, is okay.”
            “I wish you the best of luck,” she says. “Really.”
            “Thank you,” he replies, and then suddenly asks, “You live in America?”
            “No, I live here, in Tel Aviv.” She sounds surprised.
            “Ah,” he utters in disappointment, then says, “But you no lesbian, right?”
            What?!
            With a hand tight on my mouth to stifle a chortle, I scurry off, sorry to miss the rest of the encounter. I’m still grinning when I reach the borrowed car at the bottom of the leafy avenue, already missing this vivacious city.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

MP (excerpt from a fictional memoir in progress)

            “By the way,” said Liora, “I have the key.”
            “To what?” I asked, my voice sleepy.
            “You know,” she replied, “the question we’ve been asking ourselves, what Moron is doing here.”
            “You mean Eli Miran?” I asked. “Don’t be nasty.”
            “Geez, Rona,” she said with a sigh, “sometime you’re such a goody two-shoes.” She sucked on her cigarette, and rushing rings of smoke into the air added, “Anyways, I’ve got it.”
            “Okay,” I said, distracted by the sunrays dancing on my face, and shut my eyes to maximise the effect.
            It was a summer evening, the squadron was finally quiet, the pilots wouldn’t swarm in until tomorrow morning, and I was indulging in my favourite activity: worshipping the sun I missed while slaving away in the operations room all day.
            I could feel the air beyond the squadron shifting into relaxation mode. Airbase 27, a large and clumsy creature, had its offices locked up for the day, the mass of soldiers done with their daily toil, showered, changed into T-shirts and jeans, smoking and drinking soda in the cafeteria. At least I hoped there was a cafeteria somewhere on that goddamn base.
            Tucked at the corner of the Airbase’s maddening crowd, the four squadrons bordered with the Ben-Gurion International Airport, with Squadron 122, in which I was stationed, bridging the bustling base and the other three squadrons.
            Slumped on the wide ledge that hung about a meter aboveground, wrapping around the inner flanks of our pi-shaped squadron, I relished the remains of the day, savouring the last rays as if they were a lover’s tender fingers.
            “So,” I said, “what is it, genius?”
            “You mean where is it,” she spoke slowly as if to a daft child. “Right here!”
             I cracked opened my eyes to a silver key swinging in the air between us.
            “Oh,” I said. “You meant a real key.”
            She looked at me perplexed. “What else?”
            “And what does it open?”
            “A drawer? A special one,” she said with a sly grin, her eyebrows dancing up and down. “Con-fi-dential.”
            “I … I don’t know,” I mumbled. “We’ll get in trouble.”            
            “Nonsense!” she said, squashing her cigarette on the floor, then flicked it a few yards crossways into the murk under the ledge. She was an expert cig-butt flicker. “Nobody will ever know. Besides, I was never told not to use this key, so it’s perfectly fine.”
            “Hmm …” I emitted.
            She sprang to her feet, her jade eyes sparkling like a child on her birthday. “Come on!”

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Writer Without a Language

In March 2013 I had attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, aka AWP, in Boston’s Hynes Convention Center. I scrutinised the schedule beforehand, circled interesting panels, and counted down the weeks—then days—leading to the event. I have never before participated in a writers’ conference, and so I walked into the Convention Center feeling like a little girl on her first day of school.
      I quickly learned there was a gap between my expectations and the conference’s reality. I was like a snail that dared out of its shell only to find out the world is in fact a scary place. I sat in on a few interesting panels, and enjoyed strolling down the book fair’s endless isles, but ill prepared to handle the overwhelming throng, namely the 11,000 participants, the conference left me with a dampened spirit and a broken heart.
      What’s the point? I thought. Who would be interested in what I have to say, even if my voice could be heard over the literary din? Yes, I know, each voice is unique, one of a kind, etc, etc. But still.
      I am after all, I mumbled to myself on the way home, a writer without a language.

Born and raised in Israel, Hebrew is my native tongue, and as a keen bookworm I had mastered it from an early age. I was practically in love with the language, and just as childhood experiences leave deep impressions on us, Hebrew resonated in me with layers of meaning. Certain words, or a combination of them, conjured up intense visceral emotions.
      Since childhood, writing has been one of my main channels of expression. Creating my own kingdoms, populating them with scenes and characters, fills me with immense joy and satisfaction. Moreover, writing is my anchor. Putting reflections into words is vital to my thought process; it gives form and weight to abstract notions, and helps me gain a better understanding of myself and the world at large. With words I try to connect the often-elusive substance of life—thoughts, feelings, events—to the ground on which I stand.
      Long after I had immigrated to the U.S. in 1991 I continued to scribble poems and stories on pieces of paper. When a friend asked me which language I was using in my writing, I replied: Hebrew of course. But the question hovered in my mind until I could no longer resist the urge to try and compose in English; a language that represented worldliness, opportunities, and a vague sense of freedom.
      My granny, who fled Germany shortly after the Nazis took power, eventually settled down in London. As a child, I looked forward to her visits. I loved her small green suitcase (which I later inherited) that held a delicate bouquet of perfume, and promises of gifts and sweets we did not have in Israel back then. With her German-accented English Granny inspired me to admire the language.
      Throwing away the crutches and experience English from within turned out to be a struggle. The English vocabulary is far larger than the Hebrew one, and its grammar and spelling are more complex. Facing my childhood dream of becoming a writer, I thus found myself leaping from a lake into a vast ocean. Determined, I transitioned into my second language and began developing stories with vigour.
      Alas, my determination was greatly challenged during the aforementioned AWP Conference. Disillusioned by the reality of the literary scene, my confidence took a serious hit, and my hopes seemed dashed. I felt motivated for nothing save for stargazing and daydreaming. My answer came in a poem written by Vicente Aleixandre, Who I Write For. One sentence struck me most: “Perhaps I write for the people who don’t read my poems.” 
      I was deeply touched by his commitment to his craft, and his lack of ego or self-pity.
      All right, I thought, if I were to write, if I were to put into my work all I have, I’d need to figure out what it is that I can contribute. This question exposed the fact that all along I have been avoiding the subject of Israel in my writing. It felt too real. Too raw.
      After more than twenty years of voluntary exile I was ready to look at the place I once called home and left with a semi-slammed door. It was time to try and exorcise my devils, and examine that which keeps gnawing at me. With the geographical distance, and using a second language, I thought I just might be up for that.
      This new focus helps me better appreciate my homeland and all the intricate emotions and throbbing memories it evokes. When I write, I imagine my words slicing through the various layers of life in Israel to expose its complexity and nuances through the social, political, and cultural challenges.