www.rondavid.net (© Ron David)
ARABSONG: Celebrations of Life
A journal of truth, humor and occasional beauty dedicated to the principle that every
human life --black, white, arab, jew, american, non-american-- is equally valuable.
When the distinguished looking lady with her eyeglasses on a chain allowed the plumber to put his penis into her hand, the men in the audience made low noises. Naum Groffsky, a large, gentle man just past his 62nd birthday, left the dirty movie that was being shown in his honor and went to take a leak.
Groffsky stood at the shrill smelling urinal waiting for his erection to subside. His wife was not distinguished looking, she had never worn eyeglasses, she had one breast removed and then the other and then she was gone. Two years is a long time, two years is a minute. Groffsky washed his right hand, not knowing if he should welcome or deny his wife's voice in the mirror. 'Such a handsome man.' Naum returned to the El Dorado Room where his friends celebrated his retirement as if it were a bachelor party.
After the dirty movies, a cardboard cake was wheeled in. Groffsky expected a naked fat woman to pop out but when the cake opened, out came Aaron Hamlish, Naum's former partner. Hamlish, wearing a wig that resembled a Russian hat, gave a speech about Groffsky's role in making PC City the largest privately owned computer store in Detroit.
Hamlish left out the good parts. Fifteen years ago, Groffsky didn't have the greed required to screw his best friend. Hamlish did. Now Naum was retiring as Mr. Hamlish's employee. Groffsky was not the kind of man to waste his life in bitterness. He'd had a brief affair with Hamlish's wife and called the matter even. One of the worst things about losing the company was that Groffsky had to wait until his retirement to realize his dream of twenty years.
Hamlish, still inside the cake, finally stopped talking.
Hamlish shook Groffsky's hand.
Hamlish held out an envelope. What bothered the hell out of Groffsky was that Hamlish seemed to believe his own lies. Hamlish, with that convenient little mind of his, had rewritten their history.
Groffsky took the envelope, opened it to make certain that it contained a ticket to Israel, shook hands with everybody and left.
The stewardess gave Groffsky an extra pillow and he had taken the Valium that his daughter said would knock out a prizefighter but, still, he couldn't sleep. Every time he closed his eyes the airplane crashed. When he opened them, he could think of nothing but Israel. Before the Six Day War, if he thought of Israel at all, Naum thought of it as just a name and a place, nothing more. How excited can you get over a country younger than your own son? Groffsky expected Miriam to add, 'Especially when your son is such a nebbish,' but she didn't. The words were hers but the voice inside was his. Even in his mind, Miriam comes and goes as she pleases. Groffsky fiddled with the overhead nozzle that gave a pencilful of air. He wondered why there were no computers on airplanes? Put keyboards on the folding trays and monitors on the backs of the seats, what could be simpler? The air smelled like it was coming out of a balloon so he turned it off. He heard the whisper but he didn't respond because he thought it was Miriam.
"May I get you another cup of tea?"
By the time Groffsky said, "If it isn't too much trouble," the stewardess was already walking away. She took another step--maybe she had her own voices--before she stopped.
She turned and smiled. "Would you care for a sandwich?"
Groffsky shook his head No. The soft swell of her butt as she walked away made him think of Miriam. It hurt Groffsky to think of Miriam but he would not force her out of his mind.
The stewardess woke him from his reverie: "First time in Israel?" Naum looked up. She was standing over him with the tea.
"Is it that obvious?"
She smiled and gave him the tea. He wanted to fill his mind with Israel so he didn't watch her walk away. Before the Six Day War, Groffsky didn't give a hoot about Israel one way or the other. To be perfectly frank, he felt the same about being Jewish. He had never been ashamed of being a Jew but he had never been proud of it either. You are yourself and nothing more. Democracy is not a political system, it is the shape of a man's soul.
After the Six Day War, although it confused him then and in many ways still does, Groffsky found himself suddenly and helplessly in love with Israel. Groffsky would go to Israel, nothing on earth could stop him, the only question was when? Things kept coming up and he kept putting it off. Then Groffsky's mother, who had never been sick in her life. died from a stroke. Stunned Groffsky forced himself to accept reality no matter how much it stunk. Two months later, Groffsky's father, unable to bear the loss of his wife, took his own life. Groffsky was shattered. Six months after his father's death, Groffsky lost his business. Groffsky felt like throwing himself off a Goddamned bridge but how could he, he had a son and two daughters and he demanded from himself the strength to be as good a father to his children as his father had been to him.
A year or two after the last of their children had left home, Groffsky and his wife admitted that, whether through God's fault or their own, each of the children was a terrible disappointment.
All that was left for Groffsky were Miriam and Israel.
Two years ago . . . Groffsky could not bear to finish the sentence, even in his mind.
Now, all that was left for Groffsky was Israel.
Everything else had been taken from him.
It seemed to take a long time for the people in front of him to deplane so Groffsky deflected his excitement by rechecking the settings on his old Nikon camera.
As the passengers neared the bottom of the wobbly gangplank, a woman in a quiet blue dress stopped a few steps from the ground. Everyone, Groffsky included, walked around her without complaint. After he passed the woman, Groffsky turned and looked at her eyes to see if she minded being photographed--it was the airplane that Groffsky really wanted--but she seemed to understand his need just as he understood hers.
It occurred to Groffsky that he felt more at home, here, now, than he had ever felt in his life. This gave him great pleasure for a few seconds, then it annoyed him because he knew that he was being swept up in the romantic nonsense that had been manufactured about Israel.
Groffsky wanted Israel real--and the real Israel was so damned hot that it felt like there was nothing to breathe. Groffsky had once seen on television a Russian dissident who had been freed after years of imprisonment and, after two weeks in Israel, the man found the heat so unbearable that he said he preferred prison in Russia to freedom in Israel. That is the real Israel. And why had the man emigrated to Israel instead of to the United States, as he preferred? Because Israel blocked the emigration of Russian Jews to America. That is the real Israel. Groffsky had no need to idealize Israel. If anything, Groffsky was such a realist that he needed flaws in the things he loved. Flaws were where he hooked onto and made his connections. Flaws were the conduits through which Groffsky traded souls with the things he loved.
Groffsky, aching with love for Israel, took a second photograph of the woman on the gangplank but he walked away without asking her if she wanted it.
According to the Book of Deuteronomy, God told Moses to deliver blessings to those who lived on Mount Gerizim. Mount Gerizim is on the outskirts of Nablus, the largest city in the occupied West Bank.
Nablus is 60 kilometers from Jerusalem but it feels further. It lies stretched out between two dead mountains, Mount Ibal and Mount Gerizim, and its parts are growing into each other. The refugee camps housing thousands of displaced Palestinians are growing into the blue-doored sandstone buildings and the Israeli soldiers are growing into the alleys of the Casbah and Nablus is growing into the sides of the dead mountains.
Twenty-Fourth Street sits on the side of Mount Gerizim. Yaser Shahin sat on his haunches with his skinny arms around his legs watching the shbab, the teenage boys, use sticks to push a burning tire to the entrance of Twenty-Fourth Street.
Yaser did not know the other Palestinian boys but he listened respectfully as they boasted about what they would do when the Israeli jeeps came and he watched attentively when they began showing off their wounds. Riyad, a lively young man of about sixteen, rolled up his pants leg. He had three scars in his right calf. "Two of them were real bullets," he bragged, twisting his leg, "but one of them was only plastic."
"Tell them what happened to you, Mahmoud!" the one called Samihna said. Samihna looked to be about ten years old.
Mahmoud blushed proudly. He was a muscular boy, fourteen or so, around the same age as Yaser but bigger, with eyebrows that crossed the bridge of his nose. "I was flying a kite with a Palestinian flag on it," he said. "The bastards shot me in the arm."
Mahmoud's right arm dangling lifelessly from his shoulder reminded Yaser of the wrung-neck chickens hanging in the Casbah. Yaser used to live in the Casbah but he had spent three of the last seven months in a mental hospital in Nablus. Seven months and four days ago his older brother had been beaten with metal pipes and furniture legs and dragged out of the Casbah by Israeli soldiers. Yaser went to the military compound but they said they had no record of anyone named Faisal Shahin so he spit at them and ran away. When his brother was alive, Yaser, the most intelligent boy in his school, had wanted to be a professor of languages; after his brother was taken from him, Yaser didn't want to be anything. He was a hand holding a stone and an eye watching an arm like a dead chicken, nothing more.
Samihna noticed Yaser staring at Mahmoud's arm and said, "Look at this!" He started unbuttoning his shirt.
Several other boys began to unbutton their shirts, too, but when they heard the whine of Israeli Army jeeps, everyone stopped and looked. "Here they come!" Samihna whispered, as if no one else saw the four jeeps coming up the side of the mountain.
When the jeeps were about 100 meters from Twenty-Fourth Street, they stopped. Two jeeps went to search the homes and the other two drove slowly toward the tire burning in the street. The jeeps paused and backed up and maneuvered around to avoid driving straight into the sooty black smoke.
Khalid, who was seventeen or eighteen years old and quite strong, threw a stone and screamed, "Zionist cowards!"
Samihna threw a stone and screamed, "Zionist cowards!"
The shbab, emboldened by the Israelis' hesitation, began to taunt the soldiers. The boys made karate kicks at the air and threw stones that missed. The jeeps inched closer, close enough for everybody to see everybody else's face, then stopped.
Samihna threw a stone. The older boys do not tell the small boys that the stones are aimed to miss unless you are prepared for the consequences; the small boys are expected to learn by innuendo. The stone that Samihna threw hit one of the soldiers. It was a small stone weakly thrown and it only hit the soldier's shoulder. The soldier was not hurt but the look on his face said that he had drawn a line that could not be crossed.
The soldier raised his rifle and took aim. Ten-year-old Samihna did not move. Perhaps he thought the soldier would give him a dead arm that he could show to his friends. The Israeli soldier shot Samihna in the chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.
For a short time, after all the screaming and the tear gas but before the old people came running from the houses, Yaser Shahin was alone with the dead boy. When he touched the hole in Samihna's chest, Yaser realized that, at the age of fourteen, he had had enough of life, he had no desire to be alive. He was envious of Samihna. He was also curious. Yaser unbuttoned what was left of Samihna's shirt. It took Yaser several seconds to understand what Samihna had been trying to show him. Nearly obliterated by the blood and the gaping hole, the writing on Samihna's T-shirt said, "I love Palestine."
Groffsky had checked into the Tel Aviv-Sheraton and taken a quick shower--God, it was hot. While he was deciding what to do, he went out on to the balcony accompanying his room. Beneath him, the sea, the beach, thousands of people--the Jewish sea, the Jewish beach, and thousands of Jewish people--swam, sat and played in the beautiful Jewish sun. Groffsky, who had no place in his life for fairy tales, even Jewish fairy tales, finally understood what it meant to feel immortal. Immortal didn't mean that you lived forever, it meant that something did.
'Finally, Groffsky,' Miriam said, 'we are home.'
The Shalom Tower is the tallest and ugliest building in Tel Aviv. Groffsky was so immersed in the tourist booklet that the hotel clerk had given him that it took him a second or two to realize that a woman was reading the same information aloud: "'One of the first buildings erected in Tel Aviv was the Serzilya Gymnasium, built in 1909. It was torn down in 1959 to make room for the Shalom Tower.'" She laughed and said, "1909! Did we make a wrong turn and wind up in Miami Beach or is this ancient Israel?" It was the woman whose picture he'd taken on the gangplank, the one in the quiet blue dress. She stopped smiling and said, "I've never felt so at home in my life."
Groffsky started to say that he felt the same way but he stood there mutely looking at her. She was not beautiful like a movie star, she was beautiful like a fifty year old woman whose life is written on her body. Groffsky, suddenly in a terrible mood, said, "Israel is no different than Pepsi Cola. Your feelings are the result of a manipulative advertising campaign."
He took off without another word.
Early the next morning Groffsky made a list of places to go and things to see in Tel Aviv. For two suffocating days Groffsky followed his list like a man punching a clock. He went to 'old Jaffa' to see the port from which Jonah had sailed before the whale swallowed him and to the mountain where Noah had landed and to Andromeda's rock and Bialik House and the Carmel Market...
On the third day, Groffsky, dressed in long trousers and necktie and having the worst time of his life, was drinking coffee in a cafe on Dizengoff Street when he saw his list for what it was: Groffsky had no urge to see the things on his list. The list, Groffsky realized, was a list of the places and things that, all of her life, Miriam had wanted to see.
The list was not an obligation, it was an honor.
It was an honor to see the things that his wife, whom he had loved past the boundaries of his emotion, could not see.
Groffsky paid for his coffee and walked.
The list, he understood, was for Miriam. But what about himself? Groffsky had a feeling that he'd come to Israel for a purpose but he had no idea what that purpose was. I have come to Israel because..? Because ... why? Do I care about the prophets? Am I not excited at the prospect of standing where Moses stood or hiding in the cave where David hid? I am ... mildly excited. Am I a bad Jew because I don't give a fiddle where Moses walked?
Groffsky, walking, passed an Army hospital. "This is why I am in Israel." He was stopped at the door of the hospital by two soldiers who asked him what he wanted.
Groffsky said, "I want to be of use."
They looked at him like he was nuts.
Groffsky had strong impulses and a sense of mission but they didn't seem to have much to do with each other. He went back to the hotel to rent a car and he saw the woman who had terrified him waiting to check out of the hotel. He apologized and checked out too. When he went to the car-rental desk, she was waiting in line. Groffsky, taken aback by his own chutzpah, said, "If you're going to Jerusalem, I could give you a lift."
When Yaser Shahin and the men with covered faces heard the soldiers down below, they stopped talking and moved quietly to the window.
The dark, twisting alleyways of the Nablus casbah were deserted except for eight Israeli soldiers. The soldiers moved carefully, pressing their bodies tight against the spray-painted slogans that covered every wall and poking their automatic rifles around every corner. A distant voice shouted an Arabic curse and a woman's covered head looked out of a second story window. One of the soldiers cursed because they were not allowed to shoot the women. The Israeli commander banged on one of the doors.
A middle-aged man came out.
"Paint over this graffiti," the commander said.
The man did not move.
The man's eyes counted the automatic rifles.
He went into his house and returned with a bucket of whitewash. The Israelis took a cigarette break while they watched him paint. When he was finished, they left.
After the soldiers were gone, the men with the checkered kaffiyehs over their faces resumed questioning Yaser Shahin.
"But how will you know what they are saying?" the man asked.
"I understand Arabic, Hebrew and English," Yaser said.
"And what do you want for doing this patriotic thing?"
"I want the T-shirt, and ... how many days is it?"
"In three days, at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem."
"Six candy bars. I want the T-shirt and six candy bars."
"Are you really such a foolish little boy? Do you think that they won't see you when you do this thing?"
"They will see nothing," Yaser said.
"Because you are invisible?"
"I will remove the pin while it is in my pocket."
"Even so, they will see it when you throw it."
Yasir said, "I will not throw it."