Tag Archives: Middle East

The Messiah

Below is the fourth segment of my short story, ‘The Messiah,’ published originally in ‘Sambatyon, a Journal of Jewish Writing,’ in 2006. The story is in an excerpt from my novel, ‘Very Narrow Bridge,’ published in 2011. Enjoy.

“And Ray was in Vietnam, right?”
Sid nodded, suspiciously. “Is that why you’re looking for him, some old army business?”
“No, not at all. I was hired to find him. Family business.”
“What are you, a private dick or something?”
“Kind of. My first case here in America, actually.”
“I see… an immigrant trying to make a buck.”
Gideon nodded.
“What’s in it for me then?”
Good question, as far as Gideon was concerned. And the first sign that Sid knew, maybe, something concrete.”
“Name your price, Mr. Landau.”
“Now he’s talking,” shouted Ben from his corner, where he was busy watching a portable TV set, resting on the kitchen counter. “Finally talking.”
“Shut up, Ben. What you watching?”
“Gilligan’s Island.”
“Then watch it and be quiet. I’m not going to take any money from an Israeli soldier.”
“Why not?”
“I’ve got principles, that’s why.”
His son answered that by filling his mouth with air, then punching his blown-up cheeks with both fists, producing a fart-like noise.
“Do you believe, Gideon, that I’m a man of principles?”
“I sure do.”
“Then you’re my man, son. Do you have anything from Israel that you can give me?”
“What: pictures, books, records?”
“No, I’ve got plenty of those. What else do you have?”
Gideon looked around, feeling caged – no escape in sight.
“An Ozi or two will do,” suggested Ben.
Gideon stared at him coldly and shook his head. But then he remembered something, and spoke before he had the chance to give it a second thought.
“I have some soil from Israel, actually, if–”
“Soil!” cried the old man.
“That’s right. From my father’s garden, in the kibbutz.”
“Then bring it over, son, on the double. I need it for my grave.”
“You’re crazy, Dad,” shouted the real son, “he’ll go out and dig some dirt outside. How can you–”
“Shut up, Ben, how many times I have to tell you,” said the annoyed father. “He’s not like you and me, got it? He’s an Israeli, born and bred. A kibbutznik, no less. A double-sabra. They don’t cheat over there. Right, Gideon?”
“Right,” confirmed Gideon, who was not about to dispute – not at that moment, anyhow – the old man’s idealized notion of his birthplace.
“So go home, young man, and bring me soil from the Holy Land. A place I will never see in my own dying eyes.”
Gideon felt the need to say an encouraging word here, but was afraid he would just aggravate the situation even more by doing so. So he retreated to the door and opened it, allowing a flood of bright sunlight to wash this dark cave. The rain was gone, it seemed, unforeseen as when it suddenly had arrived.
“You’ll get some valuable information about Ray in return,” promised Sid.
“Good. It will take me two hours or so. I live in the Valley.”
“In the Valley… what on earth for?”
“I’m a Valley Boy, Sid, I was born in the Jordan Valley. I guess I will die in a valley.”
“Suit yourself. I’m not going anywhere, as you can see,” said the old man and tapped lightly on his knees. “Bring with you a Supreme Combo pizza, too, with everything on it. If you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing.”
“And a six-pack of Miller Light,” shouted Ben from his corner, just before Gideon closed the door.

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You Won’t Believe This

Below is my entire new short story—’You Won’t Believe This’—never before published. As I say at its beginning, I’m telling you this incredible story to: “Test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason.” Enjoy the ride.

You won’t believe this, but it happened. And I’m going to tell you about it no matter what, just to test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason. And at the same time, while keeping my imagination mostly at bay, I’m going to ignite the power of my memory and let it loose. See where it takes me.

To Tel Aviv in the early eighties, as I recall. It was just a regular summer day—hot, humid, and miserable—with no indication of the miracle about to occur. Truth be told: I was ready to kill myself that day. It was only a matter of how soon and how to go about it. What else could go wrong, I kept asking myself as I was walking home from work. My home was a rented two-bedroom apartment with a view of the beach; close enough to smell the foam of the waves and feel the touch of the breeze coming ashore. You should be so lucky. But thinking about it as I was getting closer to home gave me no comfort on that sweltering summer day, when even the sycamore trees along Ben-Gurion Boulevard couldn’t outsmart the sun, and offered little to no escape from the suffocating humidity in the air, and the relentless beating of the late afternoon heat.

Seriously, you have to live in Tel Aviv in August to understand the force this mixture of humidity and heat can generate. But never mind that, it’s not what I wanted to tell you. What I wanted to tell you was how much I hated my life that day, and how much I hated the multitude of people walking in the boulevard, talking too loudly and sending my way stinky vapors, so busy with their pathetic daily lives. I hated the cars passing by nonstop, polluting the air with their black fumes and loud honks. Only in Tel Aviv do drivers honk like that, so insanely and so insistently.

Mostly though, I hated my work. The video magazine I’d been working on for the last three months, in my position as the head of Video Production for the Histadrut, the all-powerful Israeli umbrella trade-union, had been canned for good not even an hour earlier by my fat-ass boss. He was a low-grade apparatchik who’d bluntly accused me, at the end of a loud argument in his office, of failing to understand that I was working for a political organization, not an independent production company. (He knew my aspiration, the jerk, I give him that.) As a result, I’d neglected to include—and not for the first time, mind you, it was made clear to me—the mandatory opening interview with the Chairman of the Cultural Division.

“What is it here, Russia?” I’d asked rhetorically, trying to be clever.

All hell had broken loose as result of that remark, and I’d been shown the door in no uncertain terms. Not sure at all, I realized too late, that I would be able to open that door tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or ever again.

Oh well, add that to your list of pains, a nagging voice whispered in my ear as I was crossing Ben-Yehuda Street. Just then, as if on purpose, a speeding car almost did me in for good. I would’ve appreciated greatly such a favor that day, and in truth, it was probably me who was trying to hit the car, not the other way around. I could judge that by the raised middle finger of the driver, by his loud honks, and by my subconscious intentions—pushing up to the surface of reality—on that horrible day.

Alas, no such luck: I was destined to live a little longer. A predicament made clearer to me when the smell of the salty air coming from the sea hit my nostrils, and the soft touch of that familiar sea breeze began to caress and cool my burning cheeks. Inadvertently, I increased the rhythm of my footsteps, though they still lacked any gaiety or urgency in them.

No one was waiting for me at home that day, you see: not a wife, not a son, not even a dog. They were all gone to a different part of town. If I were to kill myself—a knife would be better than a wife, a crazy idea cut through my delirious head—no one would notice my absence for quite some time. My eight-year-old son, who’d been living with me until quite recently, was now living with his mother. I left his room intact, his bed unmade, the way he himself had left it. I’d gotten so used to taking care of him in the last year, and now that he was gone, I was left with a terrible black hole in my heart.

The only recourse left open for me was to hide in the company of my misery. I was glad, therefore, to leave the bright sunlight of the city streets behind me, eager to disappear into the semi-darkness of the entrance hall to my old, weather-beaten gray—the dominant color of that day, gray, wouldn’t you guess that—four-story Bauhaus-style building. Yet even that small step demanded of me to overcome one more obstacle; a random distraction in the form of a young woman, who came out of the building and into the sun at that very moment, so enthused with the expectations of life to be fully lived and experienced. She was wearing a short, purple sundress, designed purposely to terrorize the hearts of fragile men, such as the one beating madly in my chest, and transparent enough to evince, once sunrays had hit it, the alabaster skin of her hidden curves.

Summer looks nice on you, I wanted to tell her. But even that innocent, complimentary comment, which until then had been almost like a second nature to me, so easy to set free, was so difficult for me to say on that particular day, possibly the last summer day of my life. Because, you see: If I lost the urge and ability to approach and charm a young, beautiful woman, what reason was there to continue on living?

None whatsoever. She was just another bad joke playing at my expense. So I lowered my eyes and continued my humble, defeated walk into the confines of the building. I was nevertheless followed, in a purposeful, tormenting kind of way, by the cloud of her perfume. It reminded me of the blossom of cyclamens on my mountain of youth, where my kibbutz was nestled on the slope so naturally, so securely, and where I’d left behind my happy childhood. It encouraged also an intriguing, disturbing thought: Perhaps she was—that unidentified woman, that arrogant beauty—the last person to see me alive.

With that thought buzzing in my head, I first checked my mailbox, as if it still mattered to me what I would find there. Bills galore, that what I found, which I swore would remain unopened and unpaid forever. But the most glaring envelope, a frightfully familiar brown one, did catch my eye and my attention. Here we go again, I told myself: the army is calling on you, oh eternal soldier. A reserve duty is coming your way soon, like it or not. You have a problem with that? You have better things to do with your time? Screw you—the army doesn’t care. It’s time to defend your country, man. It’s time for uniformity and patriotic songs. Another good reason to just disappear from the face of this earth. Maybe I should look for my old Uzi, hidden somewhere in my apartment. A weapon meant, originally anyway, to be used against a potential terrorist attack from the sea. I might as well use it against myself.

Oh boy, how much I hated the army. Why did I ever volunteer to the Paratroops’ Brigade? Why did I ever go to the damn Officers’ Training Course? Why did I become a young lieutenant, now a captain already, old and bruised? Why? My life was forever cursed by these terrible, patriotic, youthful mistakes. And this duty call was probably an emergency draft to do with the impending war up in the north, in the Galilee Mountains, where the border with Lebanon was heating up once more, generating winds of war that blew hard all over the country. There was no escape from the imminent storm they were ushering, I concluded, but death.

I felt sick to my stomach as I climbed laboriously upstairs to the third floor. Above me lived the daughter of my landlord, a film editor, together with her girlfriend, a model of some sorts. I dreaded meeting her, or hearing the sound of her running footsteps, as my monthly rent was now more than two months overdue. Not to mention the general house maintenance dues, which as a renter I refused to pay on principle, since I’d moved in here over a year ago. I was a man of principles back then, you see, still relatively young and naïve in the ways of the world. No wonder Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot was my true bible. I should open it one more time and read some pages, the idea occurred to me, before closing the book of my life.

I opened the door to my apartment and entered, immediately throwing my worn-out leather briefcase on the floor in disgust, and the mail on the messy dining room table. I first went to the bathroom for a quick pee, which nonetheless lasted too long. Damn—even that simple task was not as easy for me to accomplish that day, as it had always been. Next, I released my sore feet from the burden of my biblical-style sandals and undressed, remaining in my checkered boxer shorts and sweaty white T-shirt.

As I entered the kitchen, I immediately noticed that my sink was clean spotless, empty of the dirty dishes I’d accumulated there in the last week. In the fridge, I first found my lemonade pitcher not almost empty, as I’d expected to be, but full. And then, another clear evidence that my mother, bless her heart, had been here ahead of me today: she’d left behind a large jar of pre-made chicken soup, as well as a pre-cooked dinner. Chicken, of course, with brownish fried potatoes and cooked green peas on the side. It would probably last me for the next three days, I figured, if I remained alive that long. Which I very much doubted.

In hindsight of many years, my mother’s charitable acts were the first indication that something good—what exactly even my crazy mind could not have guessed, or imagined possible—might still be cooking up for me. She was so worried about me lately, and decided to take over certain responsibilities, since my wife had left me. Had left to pursue her “artistic” aspirations, you see, as if she’d ever cared much about cooking dinner for us while we were still together as a family.

I should call her later. My mother, of course, not my wife. Her next call would come from the police, or from the morgue, informing her of my suicidal death. As for my mother, I would wait a while longer before calling her. Maybe I never would. I hated telephones the most, I really did. In the kibbutz, where I was born, I grew up without the hateful instrument. I never got used to it, here in the big city; so impersonal it had always sounded to me. And so deceiving, too: you can easily lie, if you so wish. Which I could never successfully accomplish—no kidding—no matter how hard I tried.

In any case, I’ll be sure to thank my mother in my suicide note, I decided as I entered the living room. Where, despite my gloomy mood and bleak outlook, I automatically turned on the radio, which was tuned permanently to a station (Voice Aleph, I believe it was) that played mostly classical music in the afternoon. But of course, not on that fateful day. On that day news took over, drumming the sounds of war after a night of skirmishes on the northern border. Oh man, how much I hated the news that day. And the wars, of course. Always the wars.

In a personal act of defiance and protest—probably my last such act—I tuned instead to the “Voice of Peace,” Abie Nathan’s radio station, which he operated in those days from a boat out in the sea. It faithfully transmitted, at all hours of the day and night, golden oldies and classic rock, mixed with messages of peace, directly through the air and over the waves of the sea at the window of my bedroom, and at the balcony of my apartment.

Next, I glanced in dread at my writing desk, situated strategically in a shaded corner of the room. On top of the desk, beside my green Hermes typewriter, rested my latest screenplay: Love under the Eucalyptus Tree. (You may laugh, why don’t you, I’m laughing too.) The one about the kibbutz, where my father, good health may always be with him, still lived. He deserves a call, too, I was thinking, and a mention in my final writing paper as well. After all, this screenplay was in large part about him: A Holocaust survivor, a socialist, an eternal idealist and dreamer. A curse and affliction I no doubt inherited from him. No wonder I turned out so screwed up.

True to form, and to that conclusion, I was planning on directing the film myself. It was supposed to be my film, you see, my singular work of art. I would finally create a splash here in the city, and make a name for myself to go along with it. Would rescue my future, hopefully, from the jaws of my past. Would prove to all those city-type people that I, a farm-boy from the Jezreel Valley, was capable of more than just these lousy video magazines. Even though, cut to the naked truth here, the copies I’d made so far of my screenplay, with considerable costs (money originally set aside for my monthly rent), kept coming back to me from those pretentious, brainless producers, and their fake production companies. Always rejected.

Rejected and dejected was how I felt that afternoon. I couldn’t go through another rewrite. No way. Even that, sitting at my desk writing—the one thing I liked doing the most—was too much for me on that ominous, albeit sunny day in Tel Aviv. Instead, I put my hand on the phone, resting on the broken, small black & white television set, intending on calling my son. See how he was doing. Yet I hesitated, my phone anxiety taking over big time, as I realized I would probably have to speak with her first. His mother. My wife still, officially. It was the worst, talking to her. I just couldn’t bring myself into doing that. Not now—not ever.

I opened the two sliding glass doors that separated my living room from the balcony, parted them wide and stepped outside. I placed my cold lemonade glass on the small round table, standing by my old beach chair, and raised the dusty green shades all the way up. It was like raising a curtain, as they used to do back then at the old, grand Tel Aviv Cinema Theater in town, before the screening of each film. Let it begin; I was ready for the end.
A blast of bright sunlight, full-faced, and a strong sea breeze greeted me. Exposed and spread in front of me was the familiar, yet still magnificent expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, stretching wide-open all the way to the end of the world. May it will come soon, that end, I whispered a prayer; a hypocritical prayer, mind you, coming from the mouth of a devout nonbeliever. Maybe a jump down to the busy road below would do the trick, and would bring me that desired finale.

But wait a minute, I remember telling myself: here, my friend, was the sea. Your sea. Blue all right, with whitecaps and silver brushstrokes here and there, sailing boats, surfing boards, wave riders, paddle boards, flying seagulls and cresting, rolling waves breaking into foam on the sandy beach. You name it, beach-wise I mean, it was there. Including the hill of the Independence Gardens on the right, and the marina by the Seaside Hotel on the left, creating a triangle-like bay, which opened up wide into the sea.
The beach itself, normally crowded to capacity, was relatively roomy and airy that late afternoon. And therefore much more enticing. Give me a good reason, I challenged myself, why I shouldn’t go down for a swim; see if the waves still remember me. And then, fair game, pursue a careful study of the half-naked girls lying there on the sand, sun-worshiping. With any luck, I may bring one home with me. I had dinner to offer her, an aphrodisiac courtesy of my mother, which would surely smooth her way into my bedroom, and stimulate the lovemaking to follow.

Yet even that intriguing idea inspired no urgency in me that day. I felt no vitality in my veins; no rush of blood anywhere; no burning desires or uncontrolled urges were left in me. I dropped down on the beach chair and stretched my tired legs forward on the floor. I could still see the sea, peeking at me through the peeling cement rails lining my balcony. And though I searched for answers there, I found only sadness reflected back at me from the waves. It was magnified by the sun: a big ball of fire coming down for a swim. She was blood-red, just as I imagined the heart of the world to be. One has to witness such a sunset at least once, I was convinced back then, before one dies.

I took a sip of lemonade, but it tasted not as it had tested yesterday, or the day before. It was bitter, not sweet. For some reason—unclear to me at the time—I looked up at the ceiling above me in the balcony and stared hard at it, as if seeing it for the first time. I saw that, like an abstract painting, it was full of cracks. Deep cracks, mind you, deeper than what I’d noticed before. And over on the other side, I deliriously imagined, my landlord’s daughter and her girlfriend were nakedly embraced, soaking up the last sunrays of the day.

Suddenly, I felt a pull of unbearable sorrow deep inside me. It forced me to look back at the sea, still desperately searching for answers to my life’s big questions. I saw how the sun was kissing the sea goodnight, and concluded that everything streams into darkness, and every soldier must die alone, as we’d used to sing in the army. When darkness comes, I decided then and there, I would walk barefoot to the beach and enter my sea of sadness completely naked. I would swim deep and far, and plow the dark waters all the way to the “Voice of Peace” boat, or even deeper and farther than that, why not, in search of the dying sun, as I’d used to daydream as a child. I would go after her, yes I would: into the heart of darkness, into the depth of sea.

I stretched my hand to grab my lemonade glass, intending on giving it one more try, and that when the telephone rang. It shook me up all right, I tell you, since I didn’t expect anybody to remember I still existed. Hard to believe, but I didn’t have an answering machine back then, or a long enough cord in order to bring the intruding instrument out into the balcony. It could be my mother, I thought at first, inquiring whether I tasted her chicken already. Or maybe my father was calling, demanding to know when, if ever, I intend on coming back to the kibbutz. It was possible, also, that my son was the caller, eager to tell me about his new school. Even that semi-producer, what was his name, was perhaps calling me to ask if I did the rewrite already.

Either way, whoever was calling me was persistent enough to force me, after about three rings, to get up and finally stepped back into the living room, close by the sliding glass doors, and pick up the receiver.

“Hello…” I said.

The reply came from a different direction altogether. You won’t believe this, I know, but I heard a loud, strange noise coming from the balcony. And as I looked back, still holding the receiver to my mouth and ear, I saw a large cinderblock falling down from the ceiling above my balcony, landing heavily on my beach chair. It gave wings to a cloud of dust, and a fan of debris that was spreading around, shaking the lemonade in my glass.

Automatically, repetitively, I kept saying “Hello” into the mouthpiece. But here’s the kicker, my friends: no one answered back. Nor did I hear the hanging up of the phone on the other side. No static or heavy breathing could be heard, either, just dead silence. The kind—you know what I mean, don’t you? —that makes one certain that someone is actually there, on the other end of the line, listening to you very carefully.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I hung up the receiver and stepped back into the balcony. Dumbfounded, I stared at my beach chair, crashed to the floor under the weight of the cinderblock, right where I’d been sitting before the phone had rung and had called me away. I looked up at the ceiling, but saw no naked women there, just an empty hole, opening up into the darkening skies.

From the small round table I picked up my glass. A crust of white dust had settled nicely over the surface of the lemonade, just as a golden blanket of light had covered the sea below. I took a thirsty sip, disregarding the dust like a nomad in the desert, too thirsty to bother. It tasted so heavenly sweet all of a sudden. I was still alive, lucky devil, still looking down at the sea. I listened to the ancient music of the waves, and saw how they were crashing into the sand so majestically, so methodically, and so full of zest. The sea breeze was stronger now, too, and was drying the sweat off my skin.

I no longer saw sadness in the sea, just peaceful waters glowing with life. The last of the beachgoers—swimmers, surfers and sunbathers—were leaving the sand and heading back into the asphalt of the city streets, where artificial lights were coming on in lampposts everywhere. Life was normal, it seemed, the summer invincible.

A subconscious smile forced itself out of me, spreading independently of my will all over my face. I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, then leaned forward over the railing of my balcony and blew the smoke out directly against the wind. It must’ve been a coincidence, I thought at first, since no other explanation was available to me at the time. I didn’t believe in divine intervention back then, you see, nor do I believe in it much now. And yet, many years later—some happy, some sad—I still wonder who was the caller who threw me this lifeline, and saved my life.

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You Won’t Believe This

Below is the seventh segment of a new short story—’You Won’t Believe This’—never before published. As I say at its beginning, I’m telling you this incredible story to: “Test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason.” Enjoy the ride.

Suddenly, I felt a pull of unbearable sorrow deep inside me. It forced me to look back at the sea, still desperately searching for answers to my life’s big questions. I saw how the sun was kissing the sea goodnight, and concluded that everything streams into darkness, and every soldier must die alone, as we’d used to sing in the army. When darkness comes, I decided then and there, I would walk barefoot to the beach and enter my sea of sadness completely naked. I would swim deep and far, and plow the dark waters all the way to the “Voice of Peace” boat, or even deeper and farther than that, why not, in search of the dying sun, as I’d used to daydream as a child. I would go after her, yes I would: into the heart of darkness, into the depth of sea.

I stretched my hand to grab my lemonade glass, intending on giving it one more try, and that when the telephone rang. It shook me up all right, I tell you, since I didn’t expect anybody to remember I still existed. Hard to believe, but I didn’t have an answering machine back then, or a long enough cord in order to bring the intruding instrument out into the balcony. It could be my mother, I thought at first, inquiring whether I tasted her chicken already. Or maybe my father was calling, demanding to know when, if ever, I intend on coming back to the kibbutz. It was possible, also, that my son was the caller, eager to tell me about his new school. Even that semi-producer, what was his name, was perhaps calling me to ask if I did the rewrite already.

Either way, whoever was calling me was persistent enough to force me, after about three rings, to get up and finally stepped back into the living room, close by the sliding glass doors, and pick up the receiver.
“Hello…” I said.

The reply came from a different direction altogether. You won’t believe this, I know, but I heard a loud, strange noise coming from the balcony. And as I looked back, still holding the receiver to my mouth and ear, I saw a large cinderblock falling down from the ceiling above my balcony, landing heavily on my beach chair. It gave wings to a cloud of dust, and a fan of debris that was spreading around, shaking the lemonade in my glass.

Automatically, repetitively, I kept saying “Hello” into the mouthpiece. But here’s the kicker, my friends: no one answered back. Nor did I hear the hanging up of the phone on the other side. No static or heavy breathing could be heard, either, just dead silence. The kind—you know what I mean, don’t you? —that makes one certain that someone is actually there, on the other end of the line, listening to you very carefully.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I hung up the receiver and stepped back into the balcony. Dumbfounded, I stared at my beach chair, crashed to the floor under the weight of the cinderblock, right where I’d been sitting before the phone had rung and had called me away. I looked up at the ceiling, but saw no naked women there, just an empty hole, opening up into the darkening skies.

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The Absurd Regions

Below is the complete reportage — published here in English for the first time on my literary website — that was published originally years ago in Hebrew, on the pages of ‘Iton77;’ the literary, cultural Israeli magazine. It was titled ‘The Absurd Regions’ back then, and was comprised of twelve separate vignettes, reflecting my lyrical impressions of the ‘First Lebanon War’ of 1982-85, in which I participated. So here goes:

First Gathering
No smiles on the rough faces. The regular questions: How things? How’s life? The answers are heavy, occasionally harsh: shit, life’s in the dumpster. Ninety percent of our battalion’s command personnel identify with the ‘Peace Now’ movement. Objecting to the war. Objecting to the stay in Lebanon. Detesting what’s require of them to do next. One of the officers demonstrated yesterday in front of the Prime Minister’s house in Jerusalem. Before that, he marched from Rosh HaNikra up north to Tel Aviv. His wife advised him not to come this time. Refuse to go. But he is here—of course he is. Maybe because his friends are here. Who is he that he will allow them to be fucked with this shitty job without him. Maybe for the sake of democracy he came. The democracy Sharon and Raful crushed when they started this war. It’s been proven already before that there are more important things than this war: you, me, son, daughter. Life.

Traveling
The visions passing by us reflect a mixture of the bizarre and the absurd. Beautiful countryside, on the one hand: the small villages are cuddled by the rolling hills, while the mountains merge so nicely with the scenery and don’t bite at it, like some of our mountains do back home. On the other hand, dirt and filth everywhere. Ecology is a nonexistent word in the local jargon. Here, one does as one pleases.

It’s harvest time now. The small fields in the bottom of the hills are harvested using sickles, and the sheaves are gathered by hands. An old combine then sorts the wheat grains apart and fill the air with golden dust, fog like. Peaceful cows are grazing in the meadows. The shoulders in the narrow roads are littered with potholes. And with old cars, scattered about here and there. One of them, you know that, is a death trap waiting for you.

Lawless Country
In Lebanon there are no taxes; no licenses; no one pays for electricity. Teenagers drive the cars on the roads. Kids drive the tractors, with dark covered women walking beside them, majestically balancing sacks of wheat grains and tobacco leaves on their heads. New, shiny vehicles zoom by, passing by old ones whose guts are exposed.

Muslims, Christians, Druzes, Shiites and Khomeini supporters coexist in this country side by side. Mixed multitude. And there are, of course, the Christian Militia and the Chadad Falangists. The latter are the road-robbers of this country. They reside under the shade of the Israeli Army’s camps and wear its uniform. “Tell me who your friend is, and I will tell you who you are.” So say the soldiers here, who play bad cops in this grotesque drama.
The circle is rounded and closed with the UN soldiers from Holland, France, Senegal, Ireland… you name it. Some are friendly to us; some hate our guts and look down on us. A black soldier wearing blue uniform and brown overcoat stands in attention in a remote, forgotten ravine. His rifle is erect in his arms. No enemy in sight, though. He belongs, like all of us, to a different world.

The Village Women
Before sunrise the women of the village go out into the small tobacco fields that close in on their houses. They pluck the green leaves and put them in their brown sacks. After that, in full morning light, they carry the sacks on their heads to the houses. There, with their children, they sort the leaves and hang them on thin ropes to dry them up in the hot sun. Later still, they will milk the cows, lead them out into the field to graze, feed the children and clean the houses. They shoulder their responsibilities with primeval dedication.

The husbands, meanwhile, will enter their Mercedeses late in the morning, and will drive to town to attend to their businesses. Maybe visit the coffee house in a nearby village. Play backgammon there with friends and smoke the narghile. In the evening they will return home and receive from their dutiful wives what they’re owed: food, love, and respect. The Bible, in certain terms, is alive and well here.

Yoel The Handsome
Dead. Was killed in an accident on a treacherous road in one of Lebanon’s regions. A meaningless Lebanese accident—just like that. Those demonstrating in front of the prime minister’s home can add him to the list of the fallen. We spent six months, the entire army’s ‘Combat Officers Course’ together. He was the handsomest among us. In his kibbutz, Ayelet HaShahar (Morning Star) he left behind four orphaned children and a pregnant wife. They too, are among the casualties of this useless war.

The “Status of the Logos”
On our daily patrol we pass by the spot where three soldiers from the reserved battalion that preceded us on duty here were killed. One short burst of gunfire slaughtered them all. Luckily, we are still alive. For how long, though, it’s hard to say.

Back at our base, from the radio blaring in our kitchen tent, comes the voice of a scholarly literary critic, talking about the “Status of the Logos,” the “Sacredness of Art,” and “Esthetic Beauty.” It sounds as if the voice comes from a faraway country, whose residents, so it seems, are unaware of what their sons are up to here. “Dust to his feet we are,” so says the critic in regard to the poet he is talking about. And so are we, in regard to our country, our elders. So we climb on our armored vehicles. Load our guns. And off we go.

A Hand for Peace
The local population, so the papers back home told their readers, received the Israeli soldiers with cherries, flowers, and kisses in the air. The other side of the story is a lot less celebratory, and a lot more depressing. We don’t even receive smiles anymore. Only the kids, inexperienced in war and in politics, sometimes raise a hesitating hand for a wave as we pass on the road. They stand on the roads’ shoulders, littered with burned armored vehicles. Above them, swarms of bloodsucking mosquitos constantly hover.

A Dog Burial
A puppy was killed on the road. For the whole day he was lying dead on the roadside, and was beginning to stink. At the end, we were the ones to bury him. After a short hour, his mother found his burial place. She burrowed and excavated her dead puppy; exposing him again to the beams of the sun and the eyes of the world.

One of our soldiers committed suicide in a checkpoint. Those who knew him claimed he brought his troubles from home. Another soldier was sent to the “soul-health’s officer.” Those in the know said he brought his “mantel-sickness” from home. Last night, a soldier in the Border Brigade was killed in an ambush. Those who knew him said he loved the army more than he loved his home. His funeral service and burial followed the required Army protocol.

Settlement Number One
One of our provisional bases has turned into a settlement. The details, of course, are secret. But in principle, what has begun as a temporary position on the sideroad meant to protect soldiers from guerillas, turned into a permanent basis. They took possession of an olive orchard despite the local owner strong objections. Tents were raised and stakes were hammered into the ground; a fence was stretched and a flag was raised; showers were installed and latrines were dug; armed positions were built and weapons were placed in them. The commander of this new base, who comes from a left-leaning kibbutz, found it difficult to acquiesce. But his superior commander has decided so. And the silent objector, though his conscience has kept bothering him, hasn’t refused the order. That the way he was brought up in his kibbutz.

To See and To Live
A roadside munition exploded not far from here. Two soldiers were killed and sixteen were injured. Two of them critical. The mother of Amir from kibbutz Shamir—who was killed in that attack—was also killed by terrorists. Amir hated this war. He sensed it would kill him. But he didn’t refuse to come. He enlisted and died. On his bed, in his small room, he left his guitar…
A respected journalist from a very popular newspaper arrived at the sensational terrorist attack’s location, where the 70-killograms roadside explosion threw a truckload of soldiers 20-meters away. She came to see the charred remains of the truck. There was hardly a word about the dead in her report. She now sips cafe au lait at a breezy, trendy coffee place on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. Maybe noshing on a cold watermelon.

My Commander
My commander is 50-year-old. His head is balding, his eyes are in need of glasses constantly. His reserve duty service is voluntary. In his civil life he is a high-school principle. He leads by personal example: stands on duty-guard at nights with his soldiers, goes out on patrols, sweeps the yard, and washes the dishes. He never raises his voice. Sometimes he is on the point of losing control of his nerves, but quickly regains control and resumes his duty. My commander is truly an exceptional person. He hates the war in Lebanon. He even said that much to a governmental security committee inquiring about the war. He stated that what’s being done to us here is equal to the Biblical story of “Uriah the Hittite.” Generally, he hates army life and wars. So why the hell is he here?

Finale Party
Darkness. True darkness. Our replacement soldiers are here with us already. The night is full of stars. The skewers are on the fire. The coffee is on the coals. The dog is yelling. She senses that we are leaving. The Georgian and the Bedouin are brothers; the Persian and the Yemenite are brothers; the American and the Moroccan are brothers; the Ashkenazy and the Sephardic are brothers. It is a true situation—believe it or not.

The jokes and the laughter fly with the burning sparks into the night. We sing “How beautiful the nights in Canaan,” and “Hey to the South,” and “My flak-jacket is my Lover.” Since the war-songwriters didn’t write any war-songs this year, only the wrath-poets wrote wrathful-poems, the soldiers are forced to write their own songs. So we sing the most known soldiers’ song of this war, with one additional stanza of mine:

Go down on us airplane, take us fast to Lebanon; we will fight for general Sharon, and come back home in a coffin.
How it happened that the conquest, suddenly turned into defeat; you should ask the pawn, deep in the king’s carton.

At the ‘Finale Party’ of the previous company they didn’t sing. They didn’t tell jokes and didn’t roll laughter into the air. At their ‘Finale Party’ they stood in attention. A moment of silence for three of their comrades who got killed.

We were lucky so far, but for how long…

The next day, late at night, we passed the Rosh HaNikra checkpoint at the border, crossing from north to south, from Lebanon to Israel.

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The Absurd Regions

Below are three more vignettes—published here for the first time in my literary website—that were published originally years ago in Hebrew, on the pages of ‘Iton77;’ the literary, cultural Israeli magazine. Next month, I will revisit this reportage, which was titled back then ‘The Absurd Regions,’ and publish the last piece of this lyrical impression, which I wrote during the First Lebanon War of 1982-85. So stay tune, and here goes:

Settlement Number One

One of our provisional bases has turned into a settlement. The details, of course, are secret. But in principle, what has begun as a temporary position on the sideroad meant to protect soldiers from guerillas, turned into a permanent basis. They took possession of an olive orchard despite the local owner strong objections. Tents were raised and stakes were hammered into the ground; a fence was stretched and a flag was raised; showers were installed and latrines were dug; armed positions were built and weapons were placed in them. The commander of this new base, who comes from a left-leaning kibbutz, found it difficult to acquiesce. But his superior commander has decided so. And the silent objector, though his conscience has kept bothering him, hasn’t refused the order. That the way he was brought up in his kibbutz.

To See and To Live

A roadside munition exploded not far from here. Two soldiers were killed and sixteen were injured. Two of them critical. The mother of Amir from kibbutz Shamir—who was killed in that attack—was also killed by terrorists. Amir hated this war. He sensed it would kill him. But he didn’t refuse to come. He enlisted and died. On his bed, in his small room, he left his guitar…
A respected journalist from a very popular newspaper arrived at the sensational terrorist attack’s location, where the 70-killograms roadside explosion threw a truckload of soldiers 20-meters away. She came to see the charred remains of the truck. There was hardly a word about the dead in her report. She now sips cafe au lait at a breezy, trendy coffee place on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv. Maybe noshing on a cold watermelon.

My Commander

My commander is 50-year-old. His head is balding, his eyes are in need of glasses constantly. His reserve duty service is voluntary. In his civil life he is a high-school principle. He leads by personal example: stands on duty-guard at nights with his soldiers, goes out on patrols, sweeps the yard, and washes the dishes. He never raises his voice. Sometimes he is on the point of losing control of his nerves, but quickly regains control and resumes his duty. My commander is truly an exceptional person. He hates the war in Lebanon. He even said that much to a governmental security committee inquiring about the war. He stated that what’s being done to us here is equal to the Biblical story of “Uriah the Hittite.” Generally, he hates army life and wars. So why the hell is he here?

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Meet Me in Baghdad at Sundown (Last Part)

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Only 2 minutes remain before midnight when Akef thinks about the two women in his life. His wife, who in fact had encouraged him to leave Baghdad, is no longer on his side. She is on her father’s side. She can’t live for long without all the amenities and privileges she was accustomed to since childhood. It is like a second nature to her now. And all the promises and vows to stick by him no matter what, to kill herself if he would be killed – are worthless. He is certain of that. Ab­solutely worthless. She begs and cries and terrorizes him constantly with her quest to go back. She is ready even to sleep with him again, like in the good old days when he, not her brother, was the chosen heir to the throne. And this willingness on her part is a sure sign, above all else, that something is wrong here. Very wrong.

And at the same time he knows, with the same certainty but with­out any proof to support it, that the one real woman in his life, his young mis­tress – is dead already, a victim of gang rape and brutal mutilation. (Recorded on videotape, no doubt, for the enjoyment of his enemies.) He was allowed to keep her only because everybody else – upon reaching a cer­tain position of dominance and influence – was allowed, required al­most, to do so. It was a sign of maturity and power, a privilege of sorts. But it was, still is, no secret; as there are no secrets at all in this barbaric, if modern regime.

He longs for her so much, misses her so terribly, but at the same time he knows deep inside his heavy heart that it is futile: she is in a different world already.

And it so happens that when only 1 minute remains till mid­night, Akef still can’t decide what he is going to do when the telephone would finally rings. He finds himself caught between the hammer and the anvil, as the elders used to say back in his village, and can’t see a way out of it. But, as he looks with dismay at the peaceful, yet so menacing black instrument, and then stares fearfully at the electronic clock, as if trying to prevent it from moving forward, he suddenly thinks about Allah: the one and only God. He must put his trust in Allah, and in his son Muhammad, to guide him out of this dark tunnel. After all, Allah is the real Supreme Ruler, and in his name he did all those terrible things he was forced into doing. He just obeyed the damn orders, anyway; he was always an obedient servant. And suddenly – as if it were not so much by his own volition, but rather he is forced into it by a power much greater than himself – he falls to the floor and puts his head on the rug in the direction of the window, and hopefully Mecca. His eyes, however, are full of tears; he is praying silently for forgiveness and guid­ance, for…

The telephone rings while Akef is praying and catches him by surprise. He raises his head from the rug and glares at it, just when it rings for the second time. He crawls on the floor towards it and stops by the small coffee table, as the third ring sounds. He then raises his hand above the telephone, hesitating still, his mouth dry like the mouth of a dead man, when it rings for the fourth time. It is as if Akef didn’t expect this call at all, as if he didn’t anxiously wait­ed for the telephone to ring for the last 10 minutes, the last 6 months – since that terrible dream in Baghdad. Or, as a matter of fact, waited for it his whole life.

His wife, Layla, picks up the receiver on the fifth and final ring. He did not hear her opening the door, nor did he see her coming in. But now, as she stands above him smiling, reminding him of her father more than ever before; it seems so right, so befitting, so natural – the telephone cord resembling a hanging rope – that she would be the one to hand him the receiver. He takes it from her, his hand shaking heavily, even though he knows with absolute certainty who, carrying what message, is waiting for him at the other end: The angel of death, instructing him to meet him in Baghdad at sundown.

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Meet Me in Baghdad at Sundown (Part 3)

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He now drinks the rest of the coffee in one quick gulp and, angrily, gets up at 5 minutes to midnight and crosses the room. He stands close by the window, in the shadow of the cold wall, and looks outside at the lights of the majestic city of Amman. The smooth desert breeze, which plays so gently with the curtains, takes the cigarette’s smoke away into the dark Arabian night. Maybe it will reach the old king, so safe and cozy in his big palace, and he too will smell it. He remembers the spacious rooms with the high ceilings; he remembers the comfort of soft chairs and large beds, and he remembers the servants. Thinking about it, he is boiling with rage all over again at the old desert hawk, who after a while had removed him and his family from the palace, away from the hills overlooking the old city, and moved them down here into this crummy apartment on the way to the airport. He will pay heavily for that one day, the king. When Akef – so isolated and poor now, deprived of rank and dignity, without any troops to command – would be the ruler of Baghdad, the ruler of the desert and the ruler of the whole Middle East.

He bitterly throws the butt of the cigarette out the window, doubtful of his own grandiose schemes and illusions. His eyes follow the tiny red sparkle as it parachutes down onto the street, wondering whether that is to be his fate as well. He prays for the telephone not to ring as of yet, and turns back quickly to find the green electronic digits of the clock signaling that, mercifully, 4 minutes still remain.

He retreats back into the room and, though he doesn’t feel any urgent need to use the bathroom, he steps inside anyway and turns on the light. He looks at the mirror, where he finds a stranger staring back at him. And then – so unexpectedly, and for no apparent reason – he smiles. Most probably, it is his first smile since his arrival here at Amman. He looks straight into his own tired eyes and wonders why this silly smile has appeared so suddenly on his face. And then, with the sharpness of a knife slicing clear water, he realizes what a fool he was, and still is: a fool to believe in false promises, a fool to trust the wolf to squat quietly beside the lamb. He knows now that he has lied to himself as of late. He knows, as well as he knows these dark brown eyes of his staring back at him, that the “Butcher of Baghdad” – as the papers in the west had labeled the Supreme Ruler – will eat him alive. How can he of all people, Akef Abd al-Aziz, believe in this fairy-tale of a deal? How can he, with all his experience and knowledge, even for a minute deceive himself that his fate, with absolute certainty, would be any different from the fate of the lamb: a quick and brutal death. The shark will close his jaws the moment he, his biggest fish yet, will enter his mouth. A shark is a shark, after all. It’s in his nature. His own wife would be ordered to spit on his head (he had seen that happened once to a close friend), when the favorite son will bring it to the table on a silver platter. And she will obey, of course she would. And will watch without protest how the crown prince will dig out her husband’s eyes (he had seen that happened, too), and how he will throw his tongue to the dogs.

He turns off the light and steps back into the living room, realizing that only 3 minutes remain before the dreaded telephone would start ringing. What should he do, then, if the picture is so bleak and so clear? And if the picture is indeed so, why is he still pacing the small room so nervously to and fro? Why is he so restless, so indecisive? Is it because he is afraid he would be left alone, without his wife and children? Or is it because he will soon run out of money?

He is unable to find satisfying answers to these troubling questions. Helplessly, he drops down heavily on the hard chair, while his mind is drifting towards the American option. He is certain, though, that he will end up in jail there, accused of “crimes against humanity.” And as for London, or any other major city in Europe, it will be more dangerous than even here. The gang of murderers will be after him day and night. They will get him in the end, he knows that for certain, just as they got to all the others. They will pee on him, then cut him to pieces. And if that is to be his fate, well then, he would rather die in his homeland.

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Meet Me in Baghdad at Sundown (Part 2)

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Akef takes a good, long drag on his cigarette, now at 8 minutes before the expected, dreaded phone call. He then tastes for the first time the black Turkish cof­fee in front of him. Layla had prepared it for him, so considerate suddenly, after the much trouble and crying she had inflicted on him lately. But the taste of her coffee is still good, and unlike her, warm and strong. And she is right, he is forced to admit, she always was her father’s favorite daughter: the olive of his eye. And she knows him best, too. To her, she had said, he never lies. Nor ever will. All is forgiven, then, and the letter of remorse and unconditional surrender is accepted without conditions. Even her father – who danced merrily after so many funerals, those of his enemies and those of his friends, and who drank their blood as if it were but sweet wine – even he wouldn’t hurt his own daughter, his own flesh and blood, and his own grandchildren and their father. After all, he and Akef have been through so much together, at war and at peace. And if not for his snake-eating son, the cold-blooded murderer who would readily, if the opportunity were to present itself, kill his own father without a second thought, this whole sad affair – their defection to Jordan – would never have happened. As the son, Akef is sure of this, was the one to convince his father to get rid of him.

But now, Layla promised him, her father himself is losing all trust in his son and his days are numbered. She spoke with him by phone and got all the right assurances. As a matter of fact, her father had said, Akef is needed now more than ever before. His “baby” – the biological-bomb-for-mass-annihilation – is in deep troubles. Only Akef, by taking charge again of these mad scientists, can resurrect it now. At the same time, the damn Kurds are gaining ground again, up north. And who else if not her husband, so he had told her, would be able to suppress and eradicate them once and for all. And after that – Jerusalem!

And suddenly, at 7 minutes to midnight, for the first time in these long 6 months of exile that Akef feels at peace with himself. He is almost happy it is all going to end pretty soon. Even the splitting headache that follows him everywhere and the deafening whistle in the core of his brain have mysteriously disappeared. He won’t be in need­ anymore of those amateurs who call themselves doctors, over there at the Royal Hospital of Amman. Oh no, he is confident again; he is ready for action; he is resolute once more. Most probably he will be able to sleep tonight, after the telephone conversation, for the first time in a long time. He won’t be surprised, even, if his wife will join him in bed. And just as he is thinking about that he feels – no, he is not dreaming – an erection coming on. It is a sign of life he hasn’t felt since leaving Baghdad. And it feels so good, oh Muhammad son of Allah, so normal again – even if, after the short moment of elation, it quickly wilts down.

He sucks on the cigarette as hard as he can when only 6 min­utes remain, then releases the rings of smoke as slow as possible. He promised in his agreement letter to reveal all the contacts he had made here in Amman, name all the names of the people he had met, and disclose all the places he had visited. He swore to reveal where they hide, all these traitors who call themselves patriots, the “sav­iors of the homeland.” They had called him a “war criminal” to his face, his hands still dripping blood of comrades, they had said. He will show them a pool of blood, an ocean in fact. They refused to name him their leader, refused to crown him the next king. Work with us, they had told him, here in the marketplace of the old city, here in the darkness of the narrow alleyways. Be one of us: a foot soldier. Then we shall see. But he wasn’t ready for that: then, now, or ever. He wasn’t, still isn’t, a foot sol­dier. He is a general! He will personally command the unit of brave men that will penetrate their ranks and kill them all. In one swift move. The same way he had used to cut wheat with his scythe, back at the village of his lost childhood and youth.

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Meet Me in Baghdad at Sundown

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Finally, at 11:50 on the clear desert night of February 26, his wife closes the door behind her and leaves the room. He re­mains motionless, sitting on the edge of the uncomfortable wooden chair, surrounded by semi-darkness, yet able to see through the narrow gap between the heavy curtains an airplane taking off from Amman International Airport. He could have been on that plane, Akef figures, on his way to London. Or maybe even to New York. And therefore to freedom. But instead, in exactly 10 minutes, the black telephone – resting so ominously beside him on the small Arabian coffee table – would surely ring.

“Five rings, no more,” his wife Layla had said before she left to her bedroom (where he is no longer welcome). She urged him to stay put, and alert, before leaving him alone. On purpose she did that, tightening the noose she had already looped around his neck beforehand. Five rings – enough time for him to pick up the phone and confirm the deal. And seal his fate.

At the other end will be her father, his father-in-law, and the father of all the people of Iraq. He would fulfill, by speaking to him personally, the one condition Akef had set and vehemently demanded. He had stood his ground stubbornly like his old village mule, refusing to budge on that. He wanted to hear his familiar voice, not that of his son, his sworn enemy – the head of the Ministry of Internal Defense – and the leader of all the murdering-squads. Akef will be able to deduce, he is still convinced of that, if her father would be lying to him; even without seeing his false, deadly smile. But, if Akef won’t pick up the telephone, if he will let it ring through – the deal will fall through as well, and he may never again see the sad old eyes of his mother; may never again kiss the full, warm lips of his mistress; may never again touch the hard, ancient ground of his beloved homeland.

It is now 9 minutes before midnight, and the perfect time for him to light a cigarette. Enough time, he is sure of that, to smoke it all the way through before the telephone would ring. He feels how his whole life – past, present and future – is crystallizing in this small Camel cigarette. An American cigarette it is, of course, yet depicting and selling the allure of the Arab world. The same cigarette he had smoked, he now shivers in remembrance, on that fateful morning, after he was jolted out of a ter­rible dream, covered with a blanket of cold sweat. In his dream, he was walking with Layla in the marketplace of Baghdad when suddenly – while she seemed to be gaining ground on him, chatting loudly with the other women there – someone touched his shoulder lightly. He halted and turned back, facing so very close to him her father: the Supreme Ruler himself. He smiled his big sinister smile at him, allowing the full effect of this shark-like smile to terrorize him for a long moment, before saying: “Meet me in Baghdad at sundown.”

And only after her father had turned and left, disappearing among the crowd at the marketplace like a phantom, that it became clear to Akef who in fact he was: The angel of death.

But as he kept lying in the big bed, awake and shivering with fear, careful not to wake up his wife – who slept peacefully beside him, oblivious to his tormented state of mind – he could’ve sworn that in his dream he was actually in Baghdad, in the marketplace, and couldn’t figure out this riddle. Yet it was then that the misty road ahead of him began to clear up, and together with the creeping morning light it dawned on him that the time had come for him to flee. He had to leave his beloved city behind, he felt certain of that, and head for the border.

Akef was, after all, the executioner of so many lives in Iraq. He had made his way to the top – heading the Ministry of External Defense – by stepping on countless of corpses. He knew too well, and too much, to be easily fooled. And therefore, he was absolutely sure that the Great Executioner himself, who was in fact the one to order all these killings Akef had carried out, had decided already whose head would be cut off next: that of his son-in-law.

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