Before the Intifada

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A story about an old Israeli soldier and war veteran stranded and besieged in an Arab village, and how it eventually leads to his abandonment of the warmaking pursuit

Before the Intifada
Ruvik Danieli
Even after he'd begun to wander around the country, he continued to serve in the army and regularly continued to fulfill, whenever his ex-wife on the kibbutz forwarded the big brown envelope with the triangular stamp and his unit number containing the call-up summons to wherever he was currently staying, his annual thirty to forty-five days of reserve duty without a hint of resentment or antagonism. Perhaps it was due to some vestige of martial spirit that, in spite of both the antiwar indoctrination of his counterculture youth and the trauma of his combat experiences, continued to lurk in his breast and still rejoiced in the adrenaline rush of heated action; or maybe just the easy familiarity of camp life and a bevy of platoon comrades, none of them really friends of his, but nonetheless the last peer group to which he could relate. Willie himself would probably have said that it was just one of his old habits, hard to kick.
Working was another old habit that he continued to maintain, on and off. Neither Willie nor those who loved him, of whom there were not a few, had yet realized that the nomadic condition was to become his chosen way of life. And in the early days of his wandering he still felt the need for money—not for himself, of course, but to provide child support for the two young children, a son and daughter whom he had abandoned. He zealously kept himself in this fiduciary capacity towards them, it was the sole familial obligation he carried on fulfilling until they came of age; or maybe it was just one last habit that he was never able to break.
Freshly discharged after a particularly extended stint of reserve duty in the course of Operation Litani—the harbinger of Israel's twenty-year foray into the morass of Lebanon—Willie gravitated to Jerusalem. The winter of '78-'79 was cold and rainy, so he sought refuge at the yeshiva upon Mount Zion, where he felt comfortable not only with the cushy dormitory conditions, but also with the ancient liturgical practices and Torah and Talmud classes, which had been a part of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing. Nonetheless the wanderlust was already firmly ingrained in him, and by early spring—when the almond trees on the slope of the Vale of Gehenna beneath the yeshiva were just bursting into bloom—its call became irresistible. On a glorious sunny day Willie skipped classes and spent hours roaming around the Old City, seeking employment by way of happenstance as had become his wont, fully expecting to be rewarded for his efforts, but nothing—he didn't meet anyone he knew, didn't come upon any situation calling for his abilities; all he got for his pains was the occasional dirty look from a sullen Arab youngster. Even at the plaza before the Western Wall, where he was usually moved and uplifted by a sense of communion with his people's heritage, Willie felt oddly out of place and soon left. But as he was stepping in disappointment out of the OldCity through the Jaffa Gate, he literally bumped into Amos, whom he had once mentored on the kibbutz.
At the age of sixteen, Amos had been a problem child sent from home to be straightened out with a stiff dose of socialist education, which hadn't been very successful despite Willie's best intentions. Amos had been expelled from the kibbutz in a year's time, and Willie had lost track of him. But army service apparently had succeeded where Marxist indoctrination had proved incapable, and Amos was much risen in life; having trained and served in the Intelligence Corps as an antenna technician, he was now, at almost twenty-five, a thriving subcontractor employed in constructing, dismantling and maintaining the IDF's far-flung antenna installations around the country.
Business was booming. The Camp David Accords had recently been signed and Israel had begun withdrawing from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, necessitating a massive redeployment in the south. Amos had assembled a work-crew which consisted largely of men from Beth Shemesh, an outlying development town not far from the capital, all of them of either Turkish or Moroccan extraction, many considerably older than their boss, but what he was missing was a trusty lieutenant to take care of odds and ends and serve as liaison or as independent dispatcher with the workers on the bigger jobs. Interviewing Willie only so far as to ascertain whether he was willing, Amos hired him on the spot.
All Willie had to do during the calmer periods was be on call somewhere near a telephone to fetch or deliver as required. He was allowed to keep his dormitory bunk and attend lessons in whatever haphazard fashion, so the yeshiva could remain his home base of record and he was able to maintain a sort of routine. More than that he liked the busy spells, usually involving field-trips to remote facilities in different parts of the country, lofty aeries that served as its eyes and ears to the hostile neighbors: atop Mounts Hermon and Avital in the Golan Heights, where a sharp lookout was kept on Syria; just below the bald summit of Mount Gilboa, overlooking the serene Jordan Valley, gazing out to the Hills of Gilead in the east; and high on the slope of Mount Keren in the Negev Desert near the Israeli-Egyptian border.
Most of all, Willie loved the weeklong forays when he, Amos, and the entire crew would drive down to work in Sinai. For this vast wedge of wilderness he'd had a warm spot in his heart ever since he had first discovered it when he came to Israel after the '67 war and spent some time there, camping out on the sandy beaches of Nu'eiba and Sharm el-Sheikh on the Gulf of Aqaba, trekking with Bedouin camel caravans into the mountainous interior.
With Amos he'd worked out a sweet deal regarding these excursions, which occurred on a semi-regular basis, once or twice a month. Late of a Saturday evening Amos would pick up Willie at the yeshiva in the big GMC van, and together they would proceed to the Jerusalem central bus station to collect the crew. From there on, while everyone else got comfortable and went to sleep, Willie did the driving nonstop through the night, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, down the coastal highway past Ashdod and Ashqelon, through the Gaza Strip and almost to El-Arish, still near the Mediterranean shores, and then striking south into the heart of the peninsula to arrive shortly after dawn at whichever base they happened to be working. Willie's only requirement was that he be supplied beforehand with enough joints to carry him through the night, an obligation Amos gladly shouldered.
While everyone else went off to work, Willie would have that first day off to catch up on his sleep and get settled in. Then came three days during which he dutifully served as Amos's second-in-command. But then, come Thursday, he would be given the day off again to rest and gather his strength, because in the evening when the work was done and everyone else had showered and packed, it was Willie who drove nonstop through the night to get them all safely back to Jerusalem early Friday morning. For their return journey again he had only that sole requirement, to keep him alert while the others slept.
It was a good time for Willie, what with the relative stability of his domestic arrangements on one hand and the looseness of his terms of engagement on the other. He enjoyed the frequent traveling, those interminable hours spent behind the wheel, alone or in company, watching the biblical landscapes unfold. He never came to actually like the work, but he did learn to overcome his fear of heights enough to function capably while scrambling upon a spidery steel lattice, without benefit of safety harness, thirty meters above the ground.
On one occasion, with only a single day's work left to complete a job, Amos and Willie preferred to stay the weekend at the base atop Mt.Avital instead of assaying the roundtrip to Jerusalem and back. Eating their Friday evening dinner in the drab mess-hall, apart from the small detail of long-faced soldiers obliged to stay the weekend, without any prospect of entertainment or diversion, they began to wonder if maybe they'd made a mistake. But then the duty officer stepped inside to check on his charges, and he turned out to be an old acquaintance of Amos's from the army. After the meal, when the soldiers had gone on their rounds or to their quarters, he brought out a bottle of vodka, which the two former buddies guzzled as they updated each other, while Willie sat silently chain-smoking and listening.
After midnight, with the base still and somnolent except for the sentries at the gate and in the guard-posts, the officer led Amos and Willie away from the mess-hall. A steel door set in the rock slid open and they were taken inside the bowels of the mountain and given a tour of the installation's innards.
The setup was futuristic and impressive, with rows of monitors and booths inside which busy operators with earphones fiddled at the buttons of flashing electrical consoles. The duty officer went so far as to demonstrate to them how it was possible through all the communications traffic to identify and track the dispatch of a specific taxi to an address in Damascus. But what impressed Willie a great deal more than such pinpoint wiretapping capability was the noise inside the facility, the subdued but powerful hum made by the sophisticated arrays of circuitry fed by the sensors and receptors strung on the tall antennas dotting the slope, which he had so often climbed. It was a sound constantly oscillating between a contented purr and a menacing growl, as if all that information being crunched and processed were some kind of monstrous wild beast that had been locked for ages inside the rocky fastness, but was now stirring restlessly, about to emerge and devastate the countryside.
It turned out that Willie and Amos were the last Israeli civilians to leave the base at Um Hashiba on the cliffs overlooking the plain of the Suez Canal, which had served as the primary listening post to Egypt. From the summit they gazed a last time at the glinting ribbon of waterway stretched taut in the baked brown earth, and far beyond it the hazy green edge of the Nile delta on the horizon. Around them internal security agents were fussily combing the open areas and the dusty yards of the already abandoned buildings to find and dispose of any stray classified documents. A distracted officer happened by, asked them their business, and told them to hurry it up. Reluctantly tearing themselves away, Amos and Willie got in the van and drove down the twisting road east into the rugged badlands of central Sinai; behind them they heard powerful explosions that rocked the earth, and looking back they saw billows of smoke rising above the cliffs—the entire vast network of bunkers gouged out of the bedrock was being destroyed. Nothing was going to be left to the Egyptians besides bare rock and mounds of debris.
On another occasion, again to save the bother of a roundtrip to Jerusalem and back, they stayed the weekend with the entire work-crew at a base not far from Bir Gafgafa in the very heart of the peninsula. This most curious location, perched on a summit of the central range, was a state-of-the-art facility that had been constructed hastily with American funding to replace the one at Um Hashiba; but, Israel's phased withdrawal having proceeded at a much faster pace than originally projected, the brand-new installation, with its freshly plastered buildings, labyrinth of underground tunnels, miles of electric wiring and droves of bristling antennas, had to be dismantled and demolished without ever having served its purpose.
Most of the other crews had departed for the weekend, and Friday evening dinner in the cavernous, echoing concrete mess-hall was a melancholy affair. Amos wasn't feeling well and went to bed early. Willie found himself passing the time in the van with Moshe and Meyer, the two ringleaders of the Beth Shemesh contingent, driving aimlessly around the base's deserted premises in the bright glow of a moon that was almost full.
Sometime in the night, on a dare, the three of them drove over to what was the base's centerpiece—a 120-meter high antenna that was still intact, which a special crane team would be arriving to pull down that week—and climbed up to the top.
Even for someone still relatively young and in good condition, to ascend to such a height on the rungs of a steel ladder takes a good twenty minutes, giving plenty of time to make the mistake of glancing down and being appalled by one's audacity. But the towering chain of steps was ensconced in a chute of wire-netting, affording a sense of security, and every ten meters opened onto a wider level platform, where it was possible to recover one's breath. Willie, last to ascend, still dubious of the enterprise, finally emerged upon a spacious circular balcony ringed by a flimsy railing, only five meters below the needle's soaring spire, where the two others were already insouciantly lounging. After awhile, becoming accustomed to the steady, pendulous back-and-forth sway of their perch, he was able to do likewise.
At dawn, as light filled the sky and the sun rose above the Negev to their east, Willie was afforded the most incredible view he'd seen anywhere outside of an airplane.
The entire upper two-thirds of the triangular peninsula were visible, from the Israeli border, where Mt.Keren's antennas gleamed in the sunshine, to the green haze of the delta in the west. To the north stretched the sand wastes and patches of salty marshes, beyond them the azure blue of the Mediterranean coastline. And in the last cardinal direction jutted the upthrust, craggy granite massif which comprises all of southern Sinai, between the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez, its exposed face dark and forbidding even in the growing illumination. One of those imposing lofty peaks, Willie knew, had to be Mount Santa Catherina, traditionally identified as the Mount Sinai where the Israelites escaping from Egypt witnessed the theophany and became a nation, before wandering for forty years in the wilderness.
As the summer of 1980 waned, the Israeli withdrawal—at least, Amos's part in it—was drawing to a conclusion. As ever enterprising and on the rise, he'd started leveraging everything he'd learned in the antenna racket to branch out into civilian construction projects. Concurrently Willie began to drift out of his employ. Not that he was spending more time at the yeshiva; wanderlust took him to the Dead Sea, to the Galilee—but at every way-station he would stay for only a few days before moving on.
At times he was disturbed by a recurring nightmare. On their trips to Sinai, as they had driven through the Gaza Strip, along the barren stretch of highway south of Gaza City to Rafah, he had encountered firsthand the natural phenomenon known as the seasonal migration of jerboas, mouse-like rodents with long hind legs that leapt like kangaroos, crossing the asphalt strip of road on their way through the dunes. The first time it happened, he had braked and swerved crazily, trying to avoid hitting the little creatures that were thronging the roadway ahead. In the shotgun seat Amos had woken up, gripped his arm, and harshly commanded him to keep driving normally and not imperil his carload of passengers for the sake of some Mickey Mice. In time Willie learned that speeding was the most efficient way to dispatch of the ugly business, to get through the swarms as fast as possible and put out of mind the myriad tiny thudding impacts, the grotesque drumbeat of the van's passage.
In his nightmare, he would be driving down that desolate stretch, everyone else asleep in the van beside him, and he would run into the jerboas swarming across the road. He would slow down and maneuver carefully, picking his way like a sapper through a minefield, but the crazed animals kept pouring into his path in their thousands. Although he slowed even more, or came to a complete stop, the concussive tattoo only kept beating faster and louder. In panicked frenzy, the jerboas started bounding up from the ground onto the hood; there were more and more of them, swarming over the windshield and blotting out his view. The drumming of their feet on the glass would grow thunderous, and he felt that it must shatter at any moment. Then Willie would finally cry out to Amos to wake up, waking himself instead, and find himself lying shivering and drenched in cold sweat.
The first rains came late, and the country grew unseasonably hot again. On a bright day near mid-November, early in the morning, Willie was summoned to the telephone in the yeshiva office. Calling from Tel Aviv, Amos was glad to have caught hold of him: he needed Willie to pick up a consignment of steel casting bars and transport it to the new settlement of Upper Beitar, which was then under construction. Amos would meet him there.
Willie took the bus to the central station then walked the rest of the way to the supply depot in Qiryat Shaul, near the municipal cemetery. The vehicle awaiting him there was Amos's vintage blue Land Rover, in which they'd often traveled far and wide when a job called for just the two of them. The workers in the yard had already loaded the consignment on the truncated H-frames at either end of the flatbed; the bars were so long they jutted out both at the back and over the cabin in front. Willie pulled his lanky frame up to the flatbed and cursorily examined the fastenings, which appeared securely tight. He pulled on the ropes with all his strength and there was no give. The gas tank was full. He signed the receipt for delivery of the consignment, got in behind the wheel, gunned the engine and drove out of the yard.
Upper Beitar was one of the new urban settlements which Israel, since the ascent to power of Menahem Begin and his Likud Party some years previously, had begun building in the OccupiedTerritories to establish a ring of Jewish habitation around the country's capital. The chosen location was directly west of Bethlehem, but actually only one kilometer from the Green Line, the pre-'67 border, across which it was linked by a newly paved road to the longstanding Israeli village of Bar Giora. In ordinary circumstances, to get there he would have taken the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, turned off at either the Mevaseret Zion or Beth Shemesh junctions and climbed back up into the Judean Hills from the north or west, passing through Bar Giora. That undoubtedly was how Amos was making his way, which meant that he was probably halfway there already. Willie decided to take the faster and more direct route, albeit through Arab environs.
Traffic in the city was light. In less than half an hour he managed to weave his way through town and the southern neighborhoods, past the turnoff to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. As the road wound the short distance through the hills to Bethlehem, Willie fiddled with the knobs of the radio. Even in Jerusalem it was next to impossible to acquire the signal of the "Voice of Peace," the pirate radio station broadcasting rock 'n' roll from offshore waters, but here already reception of any Hebrew channel was precluded; they were all drowned out by either noise or shrill Levantine music. And there were no tape-cassettes in the glove compartment. He gave up the attempt and rolled the window all the way down, settling for the howling rush of wind in his ears.
Almost without a break houses began dotting the slopes again, and he was entering Bethlehem. Several tour-buses were parked in the lot beside the small dome of Rachel's Tomb, and dozens of Israelis, most of them apparently of national-religious affiliation by their neat dress, open-necked shirts and colorful knitted yarmulkes, were jostling each other to enter the compound. At the adjacent roadblock Willie wryly saluted the paratroop corporal who was on duty and sped on his way again.
Traffic within these city limits was as usual congested and frenetic, but well before the central square fronting the Church of the Nativity he turned west off the main road, up the rise to the affluent suburb of Beth Jalla. Magnificent limestone villas were set back from the road in luxurious gardens of fruit trees and flowerbeds, and the twisting route soon afforded a spectacular view of the town of Bethlehem left behind in its vale down below.
The scenery made little impression on Willie, however, because he had his first intimation that something was wrong that day. The usually trusty Land Rover was dragging to the left, forcing him to fight it on the steering wheel. He suspected that the left front tire was missing air or already flat. But what had become a narrow lane with no shoulders on a steep rise was no place to stop to check or attempt any repairs.
At last he reached the summit of the ascent and the road leveled out. Here stood the most palatial residences, secluded in their spacious grounds behind high stone walls bordering the paved way. But at a bend Willie found sufficient latitude at the side of the asphalt to safely stop and park.
All four tires looked fine, no air missing. He very much doubted there could be anything mechanically wrong with the pickup. That left only the cargo.
Hauling himself up to the flatbed again, right away he saw what the trouble was: the big bundle of steel bars, which when he departed had been perfectly centered atop the level crossbeams of the frames at either end, had somehow become dislodged and moved to the left, and the uneven distribution of weight was making the Land Rover list. Nevertheless the fastenings still seemed tight, there was no give on the ropes and the knots were holding. Willie knew that there was no way he could manipulate the heavy load on his own. On the other hand he was almost through to the backside of Beth Jalla, which meant that he couldn't be more than a few kilometers from his destination. He decided to gut it out.
Leaving the suburb behind, the road emerged into rolling hill country. The parcels of agricultural land on the terraced slopes were fenced off by hedges of sabra cacti, and inside them were straggly vineyards and stands of small fruit trees that flourish in the Mediterranean climate, such as the fig and carob and pomegranate. In the groves of venerable, silvery-leaved olive trees along the wayside, family groups of adults and children were employed in the harvest, threshing the branches and gathering the fruit from the ground. A vista more idyllic or connotatively biblical could hardly be imagined.
All this was pretty much lost on Willie, because he was struggling mightily just to keep the pickup on course. The roadbed had degenerated, turning pitted and treacherous, and the vehicle's list had become more pronounced; from where he sat, he could see by the bars jutting overhead that the load had shifted even more to the left. This was becoming a dangerous business, but he knew he had to be almost there.
He came to a Y-fork in the road. The left arm, recently paved in glistening black asphalt, rose steeply and twisted out of sight beyond a slope of scattered looming boulders; the right arm, as dilapidated as the pavement he had been driving on, descended into a deep wadi. The first seemed the obvious choice, but the road-sign, which was hand-printed with the name "Upper Beitar" and stood in the apex of the fork's angle, definitely pointed right.
A hundred meters down the right arm he knew already that he had made a mistake relying on some intangible authority rather than gut instinct; the sign must have been jarred awry by a passing car or mischievous vandal. This road was going nowhere fast, leveling out to curve astride a hillside that was much more precipitous than it had first appeared, with a sheer drop to the bottom of the ravine. Reversing was out of the question, but with the pavement having shrunk to a narrow ribbon it was also impossible to perform a u-turn. He had to go on until he found room to turn. The Land Rover was very unstable by now and difficult to steer, and sweat was pouring from his neck and shoulders from the strain of holding the wheel steady.
Past a bend an Arab village came into view, nestling on the slope above the road, whitewashed cottages glistening in the harsh sunlight. The place had an abandoned air about it that Willie knew not to be true, for immediately a few raggedy urchins materialized out of nowhere to run alongside and observe his passage with scrutiny. Ignoring them, disregarding also the turnoffs into the steep lanes running up into the village, he continued till he came to a broader level driveway into which he was able to turn and reverse the pickup into the road pointing in the opposite direction, to start driving back to the fork where he'd gone wrong.
But maybe because of the maneuver the heavy load had shifted even more, making the vehicle quite unmanageable. It swayed dangerously, and Willie felt that at any moment it might flip over. Smack in the middle of the village, he eased the pickup to a stop at the side of the road overlooking the steep drop to the bottom of the wadi.
Clambering up on the flatbed, Willie saw that the big bundle of steel bars, though still secured by the ropes, had strayed all the way to the far left edges of the two crossbeams on which it rested; all that displaced weight was making the Land Rover tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, threatening indeed to roll over and overturn the vehicle. He had to get rid of it.
From the toolkit in the cabin he quickly procured a sharp-edged knife and returned to the flatbed. Meanwhile the urchins, maybe half a dozen of them, had already gathered around the interloper in their domain and were circling the pickup in curiosity. Willie yelled at them to move back, waved his arms to illustrate his demand, and yelled again, louder, until it was complied with. Turning to deal with the rogue consignment, he rapidly slashed the ropes that were still holding it to the frame at the pickup's rear end; with a crashing thud that end of the bundle of steel bars slumped to the ground. But with the other end still tied to the forward crossbar, the remaining weight was now pressing down only at the front, perilously unbalancing the pickup, so Willie had to act fast. Bracing himself against the rear of the cabin, he slashed the knots, and the front end of the consignment crashed to the ground at the side of the Land Rover.
One of the Arab boys had at the critical moment darted from in front of the pickup where Willie couldn't see him, and as the consignment fell one of the steel bars had struck him a glancing blow on the head. Shrieking in pain, with blood matting his hair, the boy ran off. Willie leapt from the flatbed and hurried after him.
Just a short distance along the road the boy turned in at the gate of a large, one-storey residence and disappeared. Rushing through the gate moments later, Willie abruptly found himself inside a cool, shady, vine-covered bower with a paved floor of beautiful, geometrically patterned flagstones. It led to the front door of the house, a sliding screen that was thrown open. But as Willie slowed his pace appropriately and drew near, an elderly man neatly dressed in slacks and an open-necked shirt, shuffling his feet in slip-ons, stepped into the entrance from the interior and blocked his way.
"Is the boy alright?!" Willie cried, still panting.
The man gave no answer, only folded his arms over his chest and gazed at Willie out of deep-set, piercing eyes beneath bushy white eyebrows. That look profoundly unsettled Willie, and he realized with a start of surprise that he was still clutching the knife in his hand. Self-consciously dropping his arms to his sides, he asked again: "Is the boy alright?"
He had no idea whether the patriarch who stood facing him was the injured boy's father, grandfather, or some sort of family friend, but in any event he appeared singularly imperturbable, unmoved by the incident. Maybe the man simply didn't know any Hebrew, Willie wondered. But no, there had to be full understanding in those eyes. And not just understanding, but amusement too, Willie was sure of it; beneath the mustache the corners of his lips had begun to curl in the faintest hint of a sarcastic smile.
"Everything's alright," the man finally declared, as if delivering his offhand opinion. Then, after a pause: "Go."
Willie started explaining that it had been an accident, that he'd had to pull over and cut down the load and that he tried to warn the boys, but the man cut him short, insisting: "Everything's alright."
Stammering, Willie offered his assistance if any was needed.
It was without a doubt a smile on the man's face now. He vigorously shook his head, gestured outside, and repeated: "Go!"
Dismissed if not quite reassured, most of all smarting with embarrassment, Willie hastily retreated through the bower and dashed back to the pickup. The other urchins were hovering around it again; one of them had even opened the passenger-side door and stuck his head inside. Willie unceremoniously pulled out the boy and dumped him on the pavement. He checked the consignment where it was lying at the side of the road to make sure that it was resting quite firmly and couldn't accidentally roll over the edge into the wadi. Then without further ado, he got in the cabin and drove away, out of the village, and back up the hillside to the fork.
Turning sharply into the freshly paved left arm, up past the boulder-strewn slope, Willie could almost curse himself for his stupidity. Immediately after a bend he came in sight of the extensive cleared area in a sort of trough between the hills, dotted with rectangular blocks of concrete moldings, which had to be the construction site of the new settlement of Upper Beitar. He drove directly to the prefab cabin that served as supervisor's office.
Amos hadn't arrived yet, which meant that Willie might have time to rectify the situation. The construction supervisor, who he found sitting back with his feet up on the desk, was nothing if not cooperative; the village in which Willie had ditched the load was called Hosan, he explained, well-known for its virulent animosity toward Israelis, and the steel bars would probably be gone if they weren't retrieved fast. Galvanized into action, stepping out of the cabin, the supervisor summoned two workers from the site and assigned them to drive back to the village with Willie to help him reload the consignment and bring it safely to its destination.
Basheer and Hashem, their names were, Christian Arabs from Bethlehem; both spoke Hebrew passably well and, being in high spirits at this break from their regular chores, kept up a lively chatter at Willie's side. Swiftly he drove back to the fork, turned into the dilapidated right arm, negotiated the descent along the hillside overlooking the deep wadi and reentered the village, noting with relief that the bundle of rods was still lying undisturbed at the side of the road. He turned into the same level driveway as before and reversed out of it pointing back in the direction from which he'd come, drove up and stopped in exactly the same spot next to the consignment. Basheer and Hashem and he spilled out from either side of the pickup to reclaim it.
So gleaming white were the sun-baked houses of the village that Willie was almost blinded when he glanced up the hillside. During his brief absence the urchins had multiplied, and at least twenty boys who must have been awaiting his return immediately clustered around them. But Willie wasn't taking any chances this time; blinking back tears and raising his voice, he belligerently shooed away the onlookers until they'd all lined up docilely across the road to watch the proceedings.
With his two helpers, it was a matter of only a few minutes to hoist the bars back up atop the crossbeams of the frames. Making sure the consignment was properly centered, Willie diligently lashed it down; pulling at the ropes, he put in an extra set of knots to ensure there would be no slippage, pulling at them again until he was satisfied, then finally clambered down from the flatbed and got back in the driver's seat beside Basheer and Hashem.
He turned the key in the switch. Though the starter turned over, the engine refused to catch. He tried again: same result.
Through the most desolate wastes of Sinai Willie could remember traveling in the Land Rover with never a hitch; it had easily climbed the roughest ascent up sheer mountainsides, slogged through mud and inclement weather without flinching, tackled every obstacle in its path and prevailed. When the engine seal had cracked in the middle of a field-trip to the Galilee, requiring an overhaul, they'd been able to coax the faithful old retainer back to Jerusalem firing on only six of its eight cylinders. This kind of cantankerous behavior was most unlike it. Willie turned the switch again, letting the starter twirl in vain for a good ten seconds before relenting. He waited a few moments and tried again, even longer. Still the engine gave no sign of life, and he was forced to abandon the attempt, fearing that he might flood the carburetor or empty the battery, aggravating the situation.
Stepping out of the cabin, Willie circled in front of the pickup, raising the engine-cover to apply his meager knowledge of automobile engineering. The timidity of the Arab boys was fading fast and they had begun crowding around again. He made a halfhearted attempt to repulse them, but the stalled engine was a more pressing concern. He unscrewed the carburetor head and checked to see that it was unclogged, and that all the fuel lines were clear. He made sure the fan-belt was secure and taut. He tapped on the distributor head and electrical connections with the screwdriver handle. Then he asked Basheer to get in the driver's seat and turn the switch at his signal a couple of times, while he bent down and continued to fiddle inside the patient's innards, in a resolute display of bogus purposefulness.
All his procedures were to no avail, however. Giving it up, Willie shut the hood and returned to the cabin.
They sat there the three of them abreast, the American-born Israeli and the two native-born sons of the Christian Savior's birthplace, and tried to make conversation, agreeing that their failure to return to Upper Beitar must soon be noticed and someone would come looking for them. The number of urchins had swelled again in the interim, and by now there had to be several dozens of boys clogging the road and besieging the pickup, the bolder members of the band brashly peeking in the cabin windows. Hashem mentioned that it was now the season of Ramadan and all the grownups were fasting and doing their best to take it easy during the day, from sunup to sunset, which was why there were only juveniles outdoors.
Talk lapsed after awhile; more boys were arriving in the road all the time. Then Basheer and Hashem exchanged several brief salvos in Arabic. Although Willie could not understand what they were saying, it was clear to him that the two Bethlehemites were not happy campers.
Acting as spokesman, Basheer announced that they would return to Upper Beitar on foot to summon assistance. He and Hashem said goodbye to Willie, slipped out from their side of the cabin, and began tramping up the road away from the village and out of the wadi, their haste betraying the misgiving which they had failed to confide in him.
Well, Willie couldn't stop them from leaving. He wasn't too happy to be left behind on his own; though not overtly hostile the territory did not feel friendly either, which was exactly why he couldn't abandon the Land Rover. He sat and watched as the figures of his erstwhile helpers shrank in the distance then vanished out of sight, past the bend where the road began its climb back to the fork. It was uphill all the way to Upper Beitar, and the trek would no doubt take them a good while. Resigning himself to what might be a long wait, Willie slumped against the backrest and lit a cigarette. At the window beside him one particular face kept reappearing, a youngster of fair countenance and slender build, who apparently knew a smattering of Hebrew and was determined to exploit this opportunity to utilize it, introducing himself as Jihad. Meanwhile, it vaguely impinged on Willie's awareness that a swarming throng of boys from toddlers to adolescents was now swirling edgily around him, dredging up an old childhood memory.
In the late Fifties, when Willie was ten, the Weiss family had spent a whole summer driving coast-to-coast back and forth across the U.S., mainly to visit the then-novel attraction of Disneyland in Los Angeles. On the homeward leg of their journey they went sightseeing through the Southwest. Somewhere in Arizona, on their way from the Grand Canyon to the Petrified Forest National Monument, along a stretch of arrow-straight highway through barren desert, his mother had spotted a road-sign pointing the way to an Indian reservation, and commanded his father to turn in that direction. Turning off the paved road, his father began bumping diffidently down a crumbly dirt track, while his mother and two older sisters squealed in mixed titillation and fright at the prospect of actually encountering Native Americans.
After a couple of miles, the track finally led to a sad cluster of seemingly abandoned tin-roofed hovels beside a stunted mesa. Nothing grew anywhere in sight. It was so forlorn a habitation that someone of Willie's background could not have imagined that such a one existed in the world. His father irresolutely slowed to a stop.
By the time the swirling dust raised by their passage had been scattered by the wind, the Weiss's emerald-green Plymouth station-wagon was surrounded by a crowd of children who appeared to have materialized out of thin air. They were the sorriest, most unsightly lot of tikes that Willie had ever seen, dressed in threadbare rags, dirty and unkempt, most of them barefoot. Of both sexes, ranging from infants to teenagers, the children had formed up in concentric rings around the car, those nearest it either rapping with their knuckles on the windows or holding out their open palms and begging for alms. The upturned brown faces all seemed to bear the same expression, with no joy or welcome in it but only greedy want.
Commandeering the small change from his father's pocket, Willie's mother rolled down her window and began handing out nickels and dimes. This was a signal for pandemonium to burst out: the rings melted into a seething mass of flailing limbs, bigger kids trampling the smaller in their frenzy to draw nearer the almsgiver. Importunate fingers reached out to tug and pluck at her sleeve and exposed arm, twisting it painfully. Swiftly she withdrew it through the window and tossed the remaining coins outside, causing a scrum of altercation among the would-be recipients. With uncharacteristic initiative, his father had exploited the diversion to back the station-wagon out of the milling crowd and make good their escape from the reservation.
On the dusty track back to the highway, his mother and sisters had laughed raucously to camouflage their relief, while the two men of the family were both silent and pensive. Although Willie had been too young then to put it in words, he'd intuitively known, and could remember wondering if his father knew too, that what they'd experienced in that godforsaken spot was proof that there are some kinds of need that no amount of money in the world could ever satisfy.
Willie was startled out of his faraway reverie by a sudden violent lurch of the Land Rover, followed rapidly by a second that was even more powerful. Glancing out the window at the rearview mirror on the opposite side, he saw that ten or twelve of the bigger boys among the crowd had lined up along the pickup's right-hand rear corner, bent to grip the fenders and wheel-guard, and, at a signal from another boy who was standing beside them and calling cadence like a boat's coxswain, were heaving together in a concerted effort to overturn the vehicle into the depths of the wadi.
Before the third lurch Willie was out the door on his side. By the fourth he had circled around the back of the flatbed and come upon the saboteurs from behind, unanticipated. Subliminally choosing the biggest and brawniest of the bunch, he yanked the boy up by his collar, twirled him around and gave him a resounding slap in the face.
Crying out, more in dismay than in pain, the smitten boy stumbled back into the road, and at that the others released their grip and backed away from the Land Rover too. Only the signal-caller held his ground where he stood, confronting Willie: rather diminutive in stature, he nonetheless conveyed indomitable defiance by his bearing, and on his face there burnt an expression of virulent antipathy, so savage that it jolted Willie into making a grab at him. The boy was quick, however, scooting out of his reach and retreating across the road to the safety of his buddies. Shaking his fist, Willie wildly uttered a few stupid threats at them; the content didn't matter, he knew, only the tone of voice. Then, turning his back on the boys, he too retreated and went back to the cabin.
The deterrent effect was sustained for a short while, but it was in the nature of the arena that something approaching the former carnival atmosphere should soon be restored, with spectators milling around the main attraction once more. The troublemakers hadn't formed up again, though Willie could see faces he had taken note of, the malevolent signal-caller in particular, lurking and mingling conspiratorially in the hindmost ranks. He didn't mind, as long as there were no further attempts at sabotage, which he hoped in any event to avoid by keeping a close watch and rousting himself out of the cabin every few minutes to perform a tour of inspection around the pickup. Furthermore, it wouldn't hurt to have an ally in this environment, he decided, inviting Jihad to join him inside the cabin.
Bringing with him a cousin in time-honored Oriental fashion, the little tyke came aboard where they both took a seat abreast Willie, pleased as can be. Envious glances were cast in their direction by some of their fellows who were conglomerating outside, but others had looks of disgust or reproach on their faces. Heedful of nothing but his elevated station, Jihad was trying to make nice to Willie with his little Hebrew, starting to babble and relapsing into Arabic when it failed him. Willie interrupted him: who was the boy who had been calling the signals when the attempt to overturn the pickup was made, he wanted to know, and what was his problem.
Focusing his attention helped the little tyke regain tenuous command of his adoptive tongue. That was Saleem, he said, who hated Jews; then, helpfully offering some additional information: "He wants to be a shahid like his uncle," he elucidated.
It was the first time Willie had ever heard the word. But he did not need to be told the entire story of said uncle's unyielding valiant struggle against the Israeli occupation as a PLO fighter and ultimate martyrdom for the cause—nor could Jihad have done justice to it in the telling— the suddenly reverential tone employed in mentioning him spoke louder than words, indubitably affirming that the man was deceased, and that his posthumous stature far exceeded whatever he'd managed to achieve in life. It was a copycat concept, Willie reflected, the Japanese already milked the kamikaze for all it was worth, and what good did it ever do them? It was a concept that smacked also of unconscious borrowings from the hated Zionist enemy, such as the fallen hero Trumpeldor's immortal dictum at Tel-Hai, "It is good to die for our country," with overtones of even more historic associations to the murderous Zealots and Josephus' mysterious "sycarii" at the time of the Jews' uprising against their Roman overlords. Looking at it from a historical perspective, given the proven relative persistence of rural populations in situ, it was the same crackpot country, the same manic inhabitants.
After awhile the first cousin was replaced by a second, after that two other distant relatives took their turn sitting in the cabin for a few minutes, followed by another pair of boys. Willie stayed alert, glancing in the rearview mirrors to monitor the rear of the vehicle, but no hostile action was forthcoming, only the occasional kid drawing closer to the flatbed than he liked. At the changes of shift in cabin visitors he made his rounds of inspection, and the crowd, though still thick and rowdy, gave way respectfully to let him pass through. Even the signal-caller Saleem and his buddies were lying low in the background. For the time being at least, it seemed, all the Jew-haters, sycophants and various in-betweens among the fractious male children of the village of Hosan had struck a tenable balance around the object of their mutual interest. Another couple of boys took their turn, sitting wide-eyed in breathless excitement in a stationary vehicle within eyeshot of their homes, then Jihad returned to the cabin, alone this time, and Willie greeted him happily. It was a genuine gladness Willie felt, but surprising to him nonetheless—the plain matter of fact was that he and the Arab tyke were odd bedfellows.
High noon—under the sun the steep hillside lay scalding, the village houses shuttered and impervious, the immobilized vehicle in the road, and the crowd gathered around it. From Willie's vantage it looked as if he were stranded in a derelict spacecraft drifting through the white-hot blinding haze of a nebular galaxy. No female or anyone above the age of fourteen had appeared in sight since he first arrived; except for him, apparently only prepubescent boys and persistent flies were able to endure the stifling heat. As for how long he'd been there already, to judge by the ashtray overflowing with cigarette stubs it had to be well over an hour.
He was alone in the cabin now. The past while had been uneventful, except for the moment when a stealthy creak from behind had alerted him, and again he'd rushed to the back of the pickup only to find that two small urchins were crawling harmlessly on the flatbed; hiding his relief, he'd sternly ordered them down and given them a helping hand. But Willie's testiness could no longer be assuaged by tongue-tied company of uncertain allegiance—this waiting around and doing nothing was really starting to grate on his nerves. But it was more than that: he felt deserted by all upstanding proponents of civilized behavior and lawful conduct, not just friendless but shunned by the collective, left to his fate like a sacrificial scapegoat thrown to a pack of wolves.
His attention was aroused by a stir of anticipation which rippled across the surface of the sea of small fry around his island atoll. Glancing in the rearview mirror, he saw three figures that had cleared the rise behind him where the road left the village and penetrated farther into the wadi; they appeared to be teenaged boys, older than the rabble he'd been dealing with, all three wearing identical workingmen's denim uniforms. Jihad's face appeared in the window, beaming: "Mechanic! Mechanic!" he excitedly cried.
Moments later Willie scrambled out the door and intercepted the three as they were wading through the sea, their passage whipping up eddies of chatter and commotion. Accosting the one who appeared most mature, Willie grasped the gangling youngster by the arm and pulled him across to the side of the pickup, raised the engine-cover, and, using Jihad's good services as translator, explained to him that the engine refused to start.
The youth hesitated, a shadow of doubt darkening his eyes, and exchanged a couple of rapid-fire exclamations with his two companions who had come up beside the Land Rover too. Maybe he was worried that what Willie was asking him to do could be construed as collaboration with the enemy. But apparently pride in his vocation and desire to show off his technical skills got the better of him, there being an opportunity to impress not only so many of his juniors at a go, but also a potential benefactor or employer from among the masters of the land. Turning all business, extracting tools from a kit that one of his mates was carrying, he employed Jihad's services to instruct Willie to get back behind the wheel and turn the switch when told to do so.
Again the crowd had gathered closely around, and that palpable underlying tension had suddenly skyrocketed to a thrill of anticipation. Willie, however, was skeptical of the talents of a youth who likely was only a mere apprentice at a mechanic's shop, and the worrying thought came to him that such a stoked audience if deprived of a fitting climax after this prolonged buildup might be capable of rioting onstage or setting the theater on fire. From inside the cabin the raised engine-cover entirely obstructed the windshield, so he could not see which procedures the youth was actually performing, and it occurred to him even more worryingly that there was nothing to prevent him from deliberately doing damage if that was his intention. Willie's musings were interrupted by a command from Jihad, standing beside the door, to turn the switch. The starter turned over uselessly, just like before, and after several seconds of the metallic whirring sound unrewarded by any rousing chorus of combustion, he was told to desist.
He could hear the aspiring mechanic tapping and tinkering underneath the hood, the thumps echoing in the cabin, and he half-expected at any moment to hear something break or shatter under the ministrations. Deprived of forward vision and thus able to see only the controls of his craft in front of him, he had become acutely aware of the throng's miasmic but encroaching presence on all sides and its taut suspenseful atmosphere, of the still and silent village houses beyond the crowd sweltering upon the hazy hillside. Even the bothersome flies seemed to have stopped buzzing around; the suspense had them glued to their seats watching and waiting like everyone else.
With an encouraging smile, Jihad relayed an order to try again, and Willie turned the switch. For several moments the starter turned over with the same futility, but then the engine gave a small but distinct cough, as if saying ahem to express disapproval of the entire procedure, and immediately the mechanic called out an order requiring no translation from Jihad for Willie to desist. He took his hand from the switch and anxiously lit a cigarette.
There was more rapping and tapping under the hood, then one final wallop that made Willie wince. Once again the order to turn the switch was relayed to him, and he complied. The starter whirred, faltered, whirred again, and all of a sudden the engine caught and sparked to life; Willie unbelievingly pressed the accelerator, eliciting from it a full-throated roar.
Reacting more swiftly even than when he had come under attack, again not dwelling on civilities, he jammed the gearshift into first and started releasing the clut

Submitted: March 01, 2010

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