Friday, November 25, 2016

Ireland

Down the meandering dirt
road, too narrow for two
wee cars, the rounding hills
speed by in a blur
of infinite greens, the fresh
of the sheer blue skies inhaled   
deeply as sweet as lake water, we glimpse
thatched roofs set upon perfectly square
brick-houses, fences and hedges, a lone
dog’s barks flailing in the breeze, we wave
gloved hands at passing folks, the chilly
air comes through the open windows,
and I tighten my scarf, my eyes swallowing
the hills, the road tapering, then opens wide
again, where are the sheep, I wonder, listening
to the distant bleat rising from the field, and the sky
darkens with steely clouds, the car cuts
through swift sheets of rain,
and just as sudden, the blue of the sky spreads
above, and we cheer at the sun,
mouth agape at a rainbow, stretches
to occupy the entire sky,
as large as the universe, as vibrant as life,
and I spot two sheep in the cleave of the hills,
one marked blue, the other red, they mind us not,
grazing on the lush grass, the car will devour the
road all the way to Derry, (no, not Londonderry),
where we’d climb the infamous hill to see the two
flags: one Israeli, the other Palestinian, and I still,
to this day, not sure what I saw, what I heard,
what I know of Ireland.

Friday, October 14, 2016

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

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

                                                                      ~~~

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



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

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





Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Air

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

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

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

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

In this new land. 
In this new air.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Angels and Scars; Scars or Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we fall asleep to the sounds.


Friday, June 17, 2016

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

(Link to magazine: tinyurl.com/z5crgql)


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

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

Nothing more.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

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

(Link to magazine - tinyurl.com/z5crgql)


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

But for what purpose? he wondered.

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

Where to, he knew not.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Strays (excerpt from a fictional memoir in progress)



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

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


Friday, May 6, 2016

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

(Link to magazine: tinyurl.com/z5crgql)

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

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


This smouldering earth is my earth too.

Friday, April 29, 2016

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

 (Link to magazine - tinyurl.com/z5crgql)


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

MP (excerpt from a fictional memoir in progress)

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

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tagged


Yellow, red, blue, green—each activity required a corresponding tag; a little plastic epaulette inserted into our shoulder straps. Yellow tags for morning drills, red for afternoon ones … Or was it vice versa?
            Tzrifin, home for Israeli Defence Force (IDF) training bases, sat at the outskirts of my hometown Rishon Lezion, and was worlds apart. 
            There were six of us sharing a tight room, roughly three square-meters, in the July heat: two small windows, three bunk beds, three rust-splotched cabinets, and begrimed walls. I took the upper bunk above Vered, whose frizzy mane, barely bridled by bobby pins, mirrored the shade of the caramel taffies she constantly chewed.
            Sagit, who snubbed me from fifth through ninth grade (like when I asked for her help in math class, and she continued to gawk at the blackboard as if her ears went on strike), claimed the lower bunk closest to the door; as guard or first to flee, if needed—I wasn’t sure which.
            Hoisting her short self with oomph onto the bunk above Sagit, Orly, who shared high school freshman with the two of us, exuded nothing but amity. I envied her sunny disposition, and was fascinated by the dance of her coal-dark ringlets. She did not lose her smile throughout those dizzying days of boot camp. Her friendship with aloof Sagit puzzled me, but I considered myself lucky to have two familiar faces around, nonetheless.
            But if I were an unenthusiastic participant in school—(unceremoniously thrown out of that grade-factory high school at the end of freshman year)—boot camp exposed the hazy facet of my personality. Only now my bewilderment directly affected others.
            “You are collectively responsible for everything in this room,” the drill sergeants informed us on our first day. These sergeants, merely six months our elders, were the initial authority most Israeli soldiers faced, and feared for that very reason. “When one of you fails,” they kept reiterating, “everyone in the room pays for it.”
            My roomies didn’t seem to have trouble following instructions, but I was at a loss to decipher which tag went with which activity, my dust-smelling blanket got entangled itself when I tried to neatly fold it army-style, and then there was the gun—its barrel mysteriously crammed with invisible flyspecks nicknamed pillim; elephants. There was a whole herd of them hiding in my rifle’s gut, no matter how hard I scrubbed them free with the long brush dipped in gun oil, its sickening smell sticking to everything, souring the air itself.
            I kept getting things wrong, and all six of us found ourselves refolding tidy blankets, standing on our feet in full uniform an extra hour after bedtime, and of course showered with barked reproaches from the drill sergeants.
            Looking at me with arms akimbo and puckered eyebrows, Sagit rapped out, “We’re all doing our jobs, and so should you, Rona.”
            Fashion-diva Shelly—shrouded by a thin whiff of flowery perfume, the dreary uniforms looking annoyingly stylish on her as always—nodded at me with a look that said, That’s right girlfriend, get your shit together! and cat-walked out of the room.
            I couldn’t agree more. But I couldn’t help it, either.
            I’d stare at the drill sergeants with astonishment; do they really care if my rifle was clean? It’s not like we’d be sent to war anytime soon. Or anytime at all. They can’t be seriously hell-bent on all these ridiculous rules. Or are they?
            Sitting on the lecture hall’s floor with arms wrapped around raised knees, I examined the dozens of attentive faces around me, thinking: This isn’t just a game, where we’re all pretending to be boot camp soldiers? Am I the only one feeling we’re trapped in a Theatre Of The Absurd?
            I dropped my head to my forearm, and stared at the gunk-framed tiles. If I snuck away now, I’d be home in less than an hour, I calculated, yawning at the sweet thought of sliding into my own bed, pulled into the arms of familiar scents, resting my head on my darling pillow.
            I was tired to tears. Who in his right mind thinks that allowing for only six hours of night sleep suffices anyone alive, let alone those who are forced to run around all day long?
            And with my blue and aching rump, achieved on the first day of enlistment, my six hours were painfully compromised.  
            “Relax your muscles,” instructed the male-nurse—his hand holding a syringe; a drop of hepatitis vaccination shining at the sharp needle‘s edge—before jabbing it in my bum’s left cheek.  
            At eighteen I was not used to presenting my bareness to strangers, especially of the opposite sex, so although I tried my best to follow directions, my body might have done it’s own thing. The nurse’s warning came true: starting at the point of the needle’s prick, my derrière began bluing shortly after being injected.
            The group of us nervous new recruits, still in our civilian clothing, were pointed to a room heaped up with olive-coloured uniforms of various sizes. The crumpled and untidy piles reminded me of Jaffa’s flea market, except none of us rushed to the merchandise, or were even remotely excited at the sight.
            After much digging, I fished out a shirt and trousers my size, doffed my white baggy pants and T-shirt—Goodbye my friends, I mouthed to them—and squeezed into the olive-coloured uniforms. Standing beside Sagit, we grimaced at our reflections in the mirror, our new reality hitting us. Funhouse hoax, I said, stopping my hands from ripping off the coarse fabric.            
            With the fresh bruise creeping up toward my lower back like a drop of ink thrown into water, I was pretty sore by the end of that first day. Trying to find a comfortable spot in my narrow bunk, I cursed the clumsy nurse and my bad luck, caressing my smooth sheets, inhaling on the home-essence, listening to the girls around me draw in deep breaths of sleep. I was a sea-borne woman in her boat, rising and falling on the waves of their breaths. 
            Lethargic and throbbing, my mind resembled London on a very foggy day, and so I kept failing my entire room.            
            Luckily, we had Orly.
            “We’re in it together,” she said with a shake of the head, her dark thick-lashed eyes widening in pools of earnest warmth.
            Out of compassion, or common sense, my roommates took me under their wing and made sure we were never punished again. Even if that meant folding my blankets during the morning panic (Orly and taffy-smelling Vered), or Shelly taking charge of my shoulder tags, replacing them throughout the day as we dragged ourselves from one activity to the next. I would stand in the middle of the room, eyes half-closed with sleepiness, handled like a baby.
            They even took turns cleaning my rifle, including Jamie, our quiet American girl, who voluntarily joined the IDF. (“Say what?!” she was repeatedly asked; to which she’d shrug, beaming her sweet American smile.)
            I was indebted to them forever. I’d probably be stuck in that stuffy room for a second round of training—or to this very day—if it weren’t for these golden-hearted girls. Even Sagit eventually took pity on me; before the first week of boot camp was over, though still frowning, she flung her hefty strew-coloured braid to her nape—where it properly belonged—and buckled without saying a word. Frenemies or not, she was recruited to the cause.
            She and I had shared our enlisting day, after my dad drove us both to the Bakoom, the recruits’ absorption and sorting base—the first station on the road to soldiering up. That’s where I got my butt jabbed, though it wasn’t the first time I disrobed for the military.
            During my first conscription order a year earlier, I walked into the examination room, shy and shaky, wearing dark nylons over my nicest underwear. 
            A gelid-voiced doctor, his wall-like back facing me, muttered, “Nylons off.”
            No! I thought in dismay, I can’t.
            With the musty air growing thicker, the equipment strewn about ogling me, my unsteady fingers hesitated for a long moment before obeying.
            Naked save for my red panties, the ornamental frontal mesh showing dark puffs of pubic hair, I wobbled forward. The silent, mortified walls nodded at me with helplessness. 
            This is a strange version of my nude dreams, I thought when the stethoscope’s metal heart settled into my inner elbow, the poker faced nurse over-inflating the sleeve until I screeched.
            A voice inside me blazed, Why didn’t I opt out?!           
            Following a line of girls from room to room, I was weighed, height measured, asked to walk hither and thither while my body was being scanned from head to toe by apathetic eyes, as hands jotted down observations. To my discomfort and relief, none of the woody personal made eye contact with me.
            The final verdict: profile 72, due to foot deformation; the result of playing a game of dare with a sixteen-year-old boy straddled on his scooter. After a few rounds in which I jumped out of the way, he was forced to hit his breaks at the very last minute, realising I was not about to budge this time. The back of his bike thrust against my foot, sending me into the air in a wide bow. I froze on the ground fearing my entire body was shattered, but it turned out to be just the ankle, which I dragged for months until it healed crookedly—granting me a low military profile three years later.
            Oh well, I thought; this un-heroic grade is no big loss. I’m a girl after all, not possibly marked for combat, even if I so desired.
            Left in an empty room with no further instructions, I eventually figured out my medical assessment was done at last and I could leave. I dressed in a speed typical to lovers in movie scenes about to be discovered by the cheated spouse, and walked away from this first conscription order feeling more like a piece of furniture than a human. A creature measured before being offered at an auction. And I again pondered my options.
            At seventeen I didn’t have much but my liberty. Since girlhood I was free to roam with friends, straying far into the open fields. And soon my freedom would be taken away for two years.
            I contemplated declaring pacifism, which was rumoured to grant exemption from mandatory service, but I wasn’t sure I was one, or that I even truly understood what it meant. Or rather, I failed to see how a country could defend itself without an army, let alone a country surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies. How else could we keep our Never Again Vow?
            I took this vow personally.
            Being the first grandchild—on both sides of the family—to serve in the IDF.
            Dad drove truckloads of ammunition in the Yom Kippur War.
            His dad fought the Nazis in Italy as a soldier of the British Army's Jewish Brigade.
            My other grandfather—sent home after shooting his left hand to dodge certain death as a Polish soldier on the Russian border—escaped to Siberia with Grandma and other youngsters from both of their families. His story of witnessing trainloads crammed with Jews heading east was passed down the generations.
            After mulling over the various options, I decided to bite the bullet and join my peers. It wouldn’t be fair to not shoulder the burden and serve like everyone else, I reasoned with myself, thinking of my few closest friends. It’s just two years, I convinced myself, not a lifetime sentence.
            But now in boot camp, standing at the threshold gazing forward, two years loomed impossibly long. I was immersed in the actuality of what I tried to envision when I walked out of high school after taking my final exam, realising that when I received the results I’d be in a very different world and school would be moon years away.
            I finished high school at the end of June 1983, and two weeks later I was an IDF soldier with a sore ass and a rueful soul.

It is said that boot camp is where all social classes meet on equal terms. The neighbourhood were I grew up, and the school I attended, were far from upper crust, and yet encountering varied slices of the population in boot camp was an illuminating experience. One I would have happily skipped, but there I was, stuck with them for three weeks. 24/7.  
            My roomies and I were baffled, for example, by the tampon-chocked shower drains. Our yearning to shed layers of summer dust and sweat at the end of the day was met with flooded showers and the smell of blood and raw sewage wafting in the air.
            Fearing revenge, we made no direct accusations, but in the evenings, with our door shut tight, roosting atop our bunks like birds in a tree before nightfall, jammies and all, we whispered guesses of possible culprits.
            “It must be that loony with nappy hair from the room across the yard,” Sagit said, “she’s so—“
            “Could you please stop making out with that dirty old toy?” Shelly shrieked at Jamie, who was snuggling with her stuffed bear. This wasn’t Shelly’s first time to frown at the bear.             Jamie blushed in hurt. “He’s not old,” she said in her rounded American accent. “We’re the same age.”
            “Say what?! Shelly asked, uprighting herself in bed, the fine silk of her lingerie flowing like water. “You’ve had this … thing, for eighteen years?”
            Staring at Shelly in abashed silence, Jamie hugged Teddy tighter, her soft sandy-brown locks blending with his matted frayed fur.
            Jamie and her bear were a cute and curious sight; none of us Israelis ever owned stuffed animals. As a child, I didn’t even know of their existence.
            “Oh, leave her alone already!” Sagit said with a swift wave of the hand as if slapping Shelly on the wrist. “Anyway, as I was saying, she must be one of them, that chain smoker who glares at everyone with those raven eyes of hers.”
            Glad to see Shelly silenced by Sagit—(none of us possessed such power)—I shared my two cents from my bed-perch, saying it was possibly Debby, the flabby girl next door, her croaky cusses heard over the paper-thin wall. “But with so many clogged showers,” I added, “it must be more than just one girl.”
            Vered nodded in agreement. “True,” she said and popped another piece of candy in her mouth, masticating on it with her mouth open. “And we shouldn’t exclude nice girls; anyone might do nasty things when nobody’s watching.”
            There was pregnant silence in the room.
            We glimpsed each other.
            “No way!” Orly said with a breathy laugh, and we joined her in relief, muttering, “No, no, of course not, it’s certainly not one of us.”
            We skipped showers, bathing instead European style: towelling off at the sink, then a splash of Shelly’s perfume to the neck—a rose garden blooming in the middle of the desert. Our toilets, Turkish facilities nicknamed bool-kli’a; bull's-eye, were nicely matched with the showers. If I didn’t fall in, I’d probably suffocate on the stink, I thought, holding my breath, carefully crouching above one of these uncanny holes, at the depth of which—down, down, down—no waist-coated White Rabbit was anxiously glancing at his pocket watch, and a March Hare, a Hatter, and a Dormouse did not crowd together at a Mad Tea-Party.
            As far as I could tell, there were no tea parties anywhere on the base, but it wasn’t hard to find a tad of madness here and there, like the lack of partitions in the majority of our amenities. Privacy was a luxury in boot camp.
            Privacy was luxury, and routine was key.
            The daily 6 a.m. wakeup—a door swung open by hollering drill sergeants; like a hammer driven deep into my brain while in a coma—was followed by a mad dash to the washroom three barracks away, in hopes of having my own sink for a few seconds. Then dart back to the barracks for the swirl of pyjamas peeled away, eliminated from the scene together with any trace of civilian life, such as toiletries, clothing, and sheets smelling less of home each day. Next, uniforms donned and tagged, the million loops of the black-leather boots laced up, and lastly the blankets, nicknamed scabies, shaken outdoors, blowing dust clouds in all direction, sending a few of us into sneezing fits no matter how many times these thorny covers were thrown into the air.
            Preparations for the morning drills charged the air—their success setting the mood for the rest of the day. We were then marched to the dining hall for breakfast. The mandatory meal-march was repeated three times daily, and there—to the reprimand of some and the amusement of others—I found new artistic freedoms. With the background music of constant prattle and dull clanging of silver cutlery against plastic plates, I crisscrossed tomato slices with cucumber coins: a terraced mountain ridge, a halved hard-boiled egg for a moon. Encircled my plate’s outer edge with rinds of bread crust, the plate’s centre ketchup-swamped, two olive-eyes sunk into the sweetened-blood, the egg’s other half a mouth gaping in surprise.
            The possibilities were endless.
            I fed on crackers and foil-wrapped triangles of processed cheese I brought from home, eaten in the privacy of the room. These cardboard-n-plastic sandwiches symbolised the world from which I was extracted.  

Once my bum fully recovered, islands of turquoise were crawling up my right thigh, where the rifle kept pummelling during the long field hikes. In ninety plus degrees, trapped inside tall boots and uniforms as thick as elephant’s hide, I snailed behind my group as we circled the base in broad loops under a sweltering sun.
            Moonwalking alongside me, I once spotted a turtle. “I personally believe,” she drawled, “that haste is of the Devil.”
            “You. And. Me. Both,” I intoned.
            When I occasionally lost sight of the troop over a crest in the road, I’d gaze upward to the sun-washed sky, shake open my wings, lift off like a released bird—the ground slipping away from underneath me, my thick uniforms sliding off my limbs—and plash into the lake of sky water, the refreshing coldness goose-bumping my skin, awakening my every cell.
            Only to land, heavy and dusty, as soon as the sandy path levelled again, revealing the dozen or so perspiring girls waiting by the roadside sipping at warm plastic-flavoured water from army-green canteens.
            Tammy, the group’s drill sergeant, would welcome me with an encouraging smile as I neared them, pulling on an imaginary rope to draw me closer, then turn around while hoisting the invisible cord onto her shoulder, slow motioning in place as if ascending a steep hill.
            She was the only drill sergeant to treat us with respect, and I wholeheartedly wanted to speed up, if only for her, but all the kindness in the world couldn’t energise my hopelessly sluggish limbs.
            With sweat wetting my eyes like tears, I usually caught up with the gang back at the barracks, where they were well into the midmorning recess. I didn’t care if mine was cut short, for I cherished my time alone in the quiet of the thorn fields, the invisible boot camp clock forgetting to tick-tock inside my brain.
            Our activities were religiously timed: five-minute march to the dining hall; twenty minutes munching; two-hour morning hikes followed by a fifteen-minute break; another meal-march, chewing, march back; an endless hour devoted to gun lessons (dismantling, cleaning, reassembling); the ninety-minute group discussions with Tammy. In one of them, probably because she seemed a notch above the other sergeants, I put down my rifle and opened my mouth.
            “I don’t get it,” I said with a creased brow. “Who cares if my gun is clean?”
            Debby flashed me a smiling wink. By then her name was removed from our shower-soling suspect list. Yes, she still used foul language with alarming frequency, but she turned out to be as harmless as a panda cub, and a bit of a Wonder Woman to boot, as we found out on an especially humid evening.
            Hoping to catch a cool breeze, I joined a group clustered in the small yard outside our room when Jamie said, “But it’s true; it’s perfectly legal for cars in America to turn right on red.”
            “That’s even more absurd than volunteering to the IDF,” Zehava from two doors down said, wringing her wet hair onto the ground. The drops dimpled the dirt, accumulating into a small muddy puddle.
            Orly stepped closer to collect Zehava’s tresses that hung heavy like a theatre curtain, and turban-wrapped it into a towel. “Can you imagine if this was possible in Israel?” she asked. We shook our heads in unison, cackling at the thought of our ruthless drivers given such liberty.
            At that moment, Hilla, the chain-smoker from across the yard, approached us in a cloud of smoke. Sagit grimaced in disgust, and raising her chin said in an icy tone, “Could you please take your cancerous habit elsewhere?”
            I winced at that, fearing a backlash, but we all froze in place when Hilla pounced like a panther on its prey, with fiery eyes, drawn claws, and a burning cigarette.  
            It was chubby Debby who moved fast, hurled herself to shield stunned Sagit with raised fists and a facial expression that meant, I kid you not! The silent look worked like a bucket of cold water thrown onto a bonfire, and Hilla stopped dead, blinking in confusion, her lanky limbs deflating like a popped balloon, and walked away kicking up sand, a sour angle to her mouth.
            We later learned these two were childhood friends, and it was mainly Hilla who was saved that day, but Debby earned our fondness nonetheless.
            And now, her smiling wink earned her some extra points with me.
             “I agree with her!” she said, pointing at me with a thrust of the chin. “Who gives a fuck?”
            Tammy, as usual, ignored the profanity like one skips over a dead rat lying on the sidewalk, eyes averted. “You’re missing the point,” she said looking at me, a ray of afternoon sun refracted by her hazel eyes. “Everything we do here is meant to train you for self-discipline, which will serve you well as a soldier, and in civilian life afterwards.”
            I shook my head, saying. “You’re confusing self-discipline with obedience.”
            She gave me a half-smile. ”The two are linked.”
            I replied with a raised brow and a slanted lip-curl, to which Vered threw me a disapproving glance, saying, “I love learning about guns! Why should men have all the fun?”
            Laughter ensued, Orly’s rippling giggles rang high above the rest, piercing the stifling midday air. Her contagious laugh made me smile, and Tammy carried on with her pep talk.
            I suppose I could understand Vered’s comment, but that didn’t help me recall which rifle part went where, or heal my aching bruised hip, nor prevent the oil’s pong from lingering in my nostrils long after each class. I could sometimes taste it in my Dutch Cheese-and-crackers dinner.
            Tammy and I often locked horns while the others dozed off with their eyes open, occasionally stirred alive to swat at a fly.
            By the second week of boot camp, I realised everything has been leading up to the big event: the firing range. The following week we were marched in threes to the edge of camp, where, shifting into single file, we were deposited in individual shooting posts with a moon-size bull’s-eye glaring at each of us.
            While the other drill sergeants stood aside, Tammy walked down the row, crouching here and there to put a reassuring hand on a shoulder, issuing confident nods as the last of us lowered into splayed-frog firing position. Ricky, the stout shooting instructor, talked us through the drill, her stomps echoing in the cement floor pressing against my belly.
            “All the way on your stomach,” she boomed, her voice bouncing across the long structure even though it lacked walls. “Prop your elbows like you’ve learned, that’s right, just like that, don’t be nervous, we’re not in a real war.”
            Yet the bullets in my magazine were quite real. Each sharp with intention.
            “Hold your rifles properly, now steady the butt in … ”
            Her voice fell dimmer, tapering off. The gun seemed heavier than usual, its slick metal skin damp in my hands, the pungent oil-smell nauseating.
            Sweat beads rolling down my face. Eyes stinging. Vision blurred. Licking brine drops off my upper lip. The ground pushing harder against my lungs. I try drawing breaths. But sinking deeper into the sultry air. My heart drumming on the cement floor. Pum-pum. Pum-pum. The floor replies with Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Gunshots fire-cracking on my right and left. My eardrums ache. I heave myself to kneeling position. Draw deep breath at last. Tammy springs from the shed’s far end. Walking toward my pointing barrel. My finger glued to the trigger. It tingles with desire to pull.  It rasps Haven’t I been readying myself for this very moment?
            I want to wipe my wet face
            But my hands are heavy with metal
            Tammy’s mouth moves as she steps closer
            Gunfire swallows her words
            My finger wiggles on that devilish metal-ear with a will of its own
            Someone behind me screams Put down your gun
            Rifle and I turn toward the voice
            Ricky
            With eyes popping out of her crimson face
            Arms raised
            Palms flagging STOP
            Or surrender?
            Then
            Tammy’s voice in my ear, “It’s okay Rona, you can give it to me now, it’s alright, I got it.”
            The warmth of her palms on my shoulders; my finger persuaded to let go.
            Shaking, my rifle-free arms so light they rose high like happy balloons. I plumped down, muttering, “Sorry … I didn’t …”
            Sitting beside me, my gun on the floor looking innocent, Tammy spoke as if to a child. “It’s alright, nobody got hurt, this has happened before, calm down and we’ll do it together properly.”
            “What?” I said, blinking my tears away. “No, I can’t, no.”
             “Listen,” she said in a harder tone. “If you let your fears win, you’d carry this failure for the rest of your life.”
            I shook my head No, and wiped my eyes with the heels of my palms.
            “Take a deep breath,” she said. “Yes, good, another one.”
            “Okay girls, show’s over,” Ricky called. Glancing around I realised everyone was starting at me. “Back to your positions everyone, nothing to see here.”
            “Ready?” Tammy asked, her eyes saying, You can do it!
            When my stubborn finger eventually got its wish, greedily grabbing the trigger, I nearly wailed when the rifle’s butt slammed into the nook of my shoulder like a giant fist, the pain gonging in my brain.
            With Tammy standing close behind, I pulled the trigger again and again—freeing all twelve bullets—with eyes shut and a loosely aimed barrel. The ordeal was over faster than I anticipated; at the end of which I was showered with congratulations.
            Tammy beamed at me. “See, you’re a natural!”
            “If your target were alive,” Ricky said, “it’d be very dead by now, with ten holes stabbing its heart.”
            “The others must have also fired blindly,” I mumbled, but she already turned away.
            This was my first—and last—time to use a gun.
            Perhaps I was a pacifist after all.
            Now the group discussions picked up steam, centring on the question: was it self-discipline or obedience that prevented my panic shooting? I kept quiet, not telling anyone it was Tammy’s presence that saved the day. I no longer minded who won the argument. 
            Only to have my new fondness knocked over the next day.
            “But why?” I asked with an incredulous gasp.
            “You think outside the box,” Tammy offered.
            “And this is how you reward me?” I grumbled, feeling my face reddening. “And what about the shooting incident; wouldn’t that disqualify me?”
            She shook her head. “On the contrary, now you have a deeper understanding of the responsibility that comes with holding a loaded gun.”
            I scowled at her in silent defiance.
            “Please consider it,” she said, and I thought: I hate being angry with her!

An August breeze passed through the branches above. It was ten in the evening, and the air slid by quiet and warm. Feeling double-crossed and bitter I sat on a lone chair outside the base commander’s shack of an office, gnawing at my under lip.
            I was received around midnight, and after an anxious and insistent exchange, in which I exaggerated rebellious sentiments, I got myself dismissed from the charge. Yet my bafflement lingered; why on earth did Tammy recommend me as drill sergeant?
            Later on in my service I reconsidered: she might have simply wanted to continue our debates; as equals this time. Perhaps I was the one who had betrayed her.
            Afraid I might be faced with yet another shady idea for how I’d spend my service, I volunteered to be a Hibba soldier; comb the streets in twos, searching for possible bombs, profile passersby, and body search anyone who seems suspicious. I thought: at least I’d be moving about in the open air all day.
            It turned out the IDF schemed a different plan for me. Giving it little thought, I filled the vocation questioner two weeks earlier, wish listing the three most popular positions among the girls, never imagining I’d be accepted to any of these jobs.
            When boot camp came to its conclusion, I was re-uniformed into light-grey khaki, and sent to another base to be trained as an operations-room sergeant in an Air Force squadron. Not that I had a clue what that meant.
            Like a partially tamed farm-calf, I was now branded and tagged.