A Novel by Ran Fuchs
The man behind the counter greeted me with a wordless smile of familiarity. With rapid sleights of hand, he turned the yellow paste into Ping-Pong-sized balls, which he flicked one by one into the crackling oil. Then he handed me my regular. Just the right fusion of softness and crunchiness, I delighted, as the flavours of my childhood flooded my senses. This was a true Jerusalem falafel. The only one in London.
Suddenly the market froze, hawkers stopped their singing, chitchats paused in mid-word, and all stares turned to the clock tower, from which a tide of murmurs rose and fell, threatening like an ancient prayer.
A rush of anticipation heightened my senses and slowed my heartbeat. Another demonstration. With the falafel in hand, I pushed forward through the crowd.
The plaza underneath the tower was an unbeatable venue for illegal gatherings. The stone wall, which had once enclosed the village fountain, served as a stage for fervent speakers. The iron poles encircling the cobbled yard made the place inaccessible to law enforcement vehicles. Even the arches over the alleyways to the old jail, too low for mounted police, were built as if to provide an escape whenever trouble erupted. A demonstration here was a thrill I could not resist.
“Excuse me, will you come to our stand to sign a petition?”
The question, asked with a light Japanese accent, came from a petite woman wrapped in a red ski jacket that cloaked her figure—but not from my imagination.
“Nihon jin desu ka?” I asked. Are you Japanese?
Her mouth gaped.
“Nihongo o josu desu ne,” she uttered the answer I had learned to expect— You speak Japanese very well.
“Okagesama de,” I said—Thank you. “What’s your name?”
“Noriko. Will you come to our stand?”
I followed her to a rickety table, onto which a brunette was stapling a banner. “Support the children of Gaza,” it read. Instinctively, I turned to face the crowd. With my back protected against the table, I studied the scene. Could anyone recognize I was an Israeli?
Several dozen demonstrators packed the court. Many held banners spattered with red stains. “Stop the genocide” and “Israel mass murderers,” they cried.
Teenagers were posing for photos. With faces wrapped in black and white keffiyehs—the symbol of the Palestinian resistance against the British—they waved the green flag of the Hamas militant movement on which, in white Arabic script, the Shahadah was inscribed: “la ilaha illa-llah, muhammadun rasulu-llah,” there is no deity but God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.
A middle-aged man with a groomed beard was standing atop the fountain wall, holding a loudspeaker. Even though only a white robe and a red fez protected him from the well-below-freezing temperature, sweat rolled down his face. With a distinct Oxford accent, he orchestrated the crowd.
“When you drink Coca-Cola, when you buy at Marks and Spencer, when you have a coffee at Starbucks, you give money to the Zionists to kill your friends in Gaza.”
“Forget Nestlé,” roared his orange loudspeaker.
“No more Nestlé,” followed the crowd.
“Don’t drink Coca-Cola,” he sang, waving his hands like a conductor.
“No more Coca-Cola,” chanted the crowd in unison.
“I want you to shout so loud that your brethren in the Gaza streets hear you. Long live Palestine.”
“Long live Gaza,” roared the crowd.
“One two three four.”
“Israel no more.”
“Five, six, seven eight.”
“Israel will soon be dead,” hollered the crowd in ecstasy.
Tightness was creeping from between my shoulder blades, as though the entire hostility was aimed at me alone. It was a sensation I experienced whenever anyone condemned Israel—even if I agreed with their views. Logic had no power over this primordial susceptibility, reaching back to times when calls to defend the tribe overpowered reason. After so many years abroad, Israel still dominated my emotions.
A tug at my sleeve. Noriko.
“You can sign here,” she said, waving a pen and a sheet of paper on a wooden clipboard.
But before I could think of an answer, a nearby argument hijacked my attention.
I grasped the table.
It was not the words that unbalanced me. I could barely decipher them. It was the voice that pierced me with aching longing, snapping me away from Noriko, the demonstration, and the frozen winter, drawing me toward it, unable to resist.
“Where are you going?” Noriko asked, her face awash with surprise.
But her words slid off my mind, replaced by the voice that for years had occupied my reveries and haunted my sleepless nights.
And there he stood. Despite the weight he had gained, the hair he had lost, I had no doubt: this was Yoav, the friend I had hoped never to see again.
The world turned silent, deafened by my heartbeat. Surely, everyone could hear it. Yoav apparently did. He turned away from his argument and, without a moment’s hesitation, with no hint of surprise, he smiled and said, “Boaz?”
Images, flashing through my mind, failed to turn into words. But Yoav, in his casual manner, as if our meeting was but an everyday event, said, “Let’s get out of this madness. How long has it been?”
Twenty-six years and four months, I did not need to calculate.
It was the summer of 1982. For the first time since the onset of the Lebanon war, having survived weeks of fighting, my squad was heading back to Israel.
In the belly of a dusty military truck, under the glow of a yellow, 24V bulb, we, ten soil-covered soldiers, unshaven and red-eyed, were sitting on two folding benches, facing each other. Yoav was there; Moshe was not. We were on a 48-hour leave to serve as an honour guard at his funeral. His body had been flown in the night before.
It was an oppressive Mediterranean summer, and despite the early hour and the shooting slits, the truck had turned into a sweat chamber. I wiped my forearm, glimpsing at the flushed faces of my soldiers from under my sleeve, avoiding their eyes, especially Yoav’s.
When we crossed the border into Israel, leaving Lebanon behind, we rolled up the corners of the canvas, removed our tactical vests, and let the draft dry our sweat-drenched shirts. The snapping sound of ejected magazines and the rattle of bolt-carriers sliding in their chambers assured me that our rifles were now safe. We had less than four hours to Jerusalem. This was our chance to catch some rest.
For three years we had been a tightly knit team. Moshe was the first we had lost.
But this was not the place for contemplation, nor time for guilt: coming from the battle, still in our combat gear, I needed to get my soldiers ready.
Spit-shining our boots was a daily ceremony that we, a fighting squad, had always scoffed at. But now, the familiar ritual of brushing off the dirt, drowning the worn-out marks in layers of shoe polish, buffing the dried flakes with a damp cloth, snapped us back to routine. Enduring dry-shaving in the jerky truck helped restore grumble, conversation, teasing, and even jokes, which lasted until we entered Jerusalem.
Shortly after, in ironed olive uniforms, polished maroon boots, and red berets, the eleven of us lined up, facing the freshly dug grave in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzel. Blooming flowers in the four-by-three beds at the foot of each headstone sparkled wet. Lush trees hid the mourners from the blazing light. Domed by summer dust, Mt. Herzel was an oasis of death among the sunbaked hills of Jerusalem.
Hundreds of mourners gathered to pay their last respects. Soldiers in service uniforms stood without a whisper.
A rustle passed through the throng as the crowd parted. A female officer in a light-grey navy uniform led Moshe’s mother by the arm as if she were guiding a blind person. Supported by two sergeants, Moshe’s father followed, murmuring to himself, never raising his eyes. Moshe’s three brothers stepped behind with their families, their children all wearing Sabbath’s white shirts. The procession reached the open grave. Moshe’s mother, in her everyday floral dress and a purple headscarf, pressed her palms to her chest and looked up, as if to seek an answer in the void above. The sky was faultless blue. Letting her head drop, her gaze froze on the gaping hole. With a piercing wail, she plunged to the ground. Moshe’s eldest brother, Avi, rushed to embrace her.
My eyes landed on Tali. She was leaning against a tree, like a visitor, an outsider, as if she had no connection with us, nor with the funeral. When she saw me, her lips moved in a whisper. I turned my head away.
A chanting rabbi shuffled toward the grave. Behind him, six soldiers carried the casket, draped with the white and blue flag. The rabbi conducted his prayer. Minor politicians followed. They made the type of statements we often heard on the radio. They talked of duty, heroism, and sacrifice, as if it were not Moshe they talked about. Our Moshe. He was missing, and only his mother’s sobs and his father’s murmur reminded me that this was his funeral, too.
Then Tali approached the grave.
“I was preparing for your twenty-first birthday, Moshe,” she started, her voice faint, yet barely quivering. “You were always so brave. … I always loved it when you read your poems to me. Now I want to read my poem to you.”
The first clod of earth drops
Soon, only memories remain
The hole in the ground is filling
Not that in my heart
It will remain open
Tali stared at us, his squad. I dropped my eyes, wishing that she, her words, and the entire ceremony were over, and that I was far away.
When I looked up, I could see her pushing her way, disappearing behind the crowd, and for a moment—just a fleeting moment—an inappropriate lightness washed through me, a relief I had not felt in days: I would not need to lie to her after all.
At my command, the team, with blank cartridges in their magazines, shot three volleys. The funeral was over.
With the ceremony complete, the captain ordered me to pass command to Yoav and take a two-day compassionate leave to be with Moshe’s family. Dreading the unavoidable questions, I disobeyed the order and spent my leave arranging a transfer to another unit. I had never seen my men again. Not until now.
Twenty-six years and four months later, as I was following Yoav through the damp alleyways of London, I thought of our childhood together, and the heat of summer. I thought of all the people I lost and those I left behind. And I remembered Agui’s last words, “Only when you return to where you came from will you find what you have lost.”