How hard, how bitter it is to become a man.
CHAPTER TWO (part 1)
My mother, Ima, told me that the first snow of the year had started covering Jerusalem as she was leaving the maternity ward to walk back home, carrying me wrapped in a soft woollen blanket she had borrowed from the hospital.
A nurse, horrified by the sight of a mother and a newborn stepping into the storm, called Sabba, my grandfather, who drove along the streets, searching for us in his extra-long Chevrolet Impala. Abba, my father, studying for his university degree, was unavailable that day.
Sabba would swear that no sooner had I entered the heated car than I opened my eyes and smiled. That was the moment he knew I would be the son he had never had and insisted that Ima and I would live with him and Savta, my grandmother, until Abba finished his studies. My first memory is in their apartment:
I am rocking back and forth in my crib, clenching the smooth wooden bars. My crib has metal hinges that squeak as it slides, inch by inch, along the tiled floor toward the window. Through the glass, I see the monastery in the valley below. Bearded figures, black from hat to shoe, are walking on its roof between the buff dome and the cypress tree. It was a fortress of mystery where talking bears and wolves, bandits and princesses lived their adventures, adventures that Savta would feed me together with my steaming porridge, as I was sitting in my highchair facing the view. Savta, always wearing her apron, would not finish a story until the last spoonful—an aeroplane she called it—took off from the plate and landed in my gaping mouth. For her, having grown up hungry, leaving food on the plate was sacrilegious. “Health is in the dish,” she used to say.
In the evenings Savta would push me in my stroller the half hour it took to our apartment near the city centre. Before closing the door and checking it did not lock behind her by mistake, Savta would lay refreshments on the oak tabletop and lean a card against the fruit bowl. “I'm sorry we are not home. Please take some refreshments and come again soon,” it said.
We often stopped at the playground, whose sharp gravel drew the bleeding scratches I proudly wore on my knees and elbows throughout my childhood. At its centre was a sandbox onto which Savta would unload me and my building tools: a blue pail with a yellow handle and a green shovel. It was at that sandbox, on a crisp winter day, that I was attacked for the first time.
The sand, damp from the morning rain, was easy to pack, my castle gaining height, when, without a warning, a hand shoved me from the back, forcing my face down. Sand crawled up my nostrils. I could not breathe. The hand was too strong. I could not fight. I did not fight.
The pressure lifted. I could raise my head and breathe again. My pain eased. An older boy, one I had not seen before, picked up my bucket and filled it with sand. I turned to look for Savta. The boy hurled sand at me. It hit my head. Savta was talking with other mothers and grandmothers on a nearby bench. When she saw me looking at her, she waved and returned to her conversation. I brushed the sand off my hair and spit it out of my mouth. Adults did not interfere with children’s games.
“Coward, coward,” the boy shouted, kicking sand in my direction.
Unsure how to react, I stood up and silently watched him jump on my castle. He froze and, staring at me looking at him, plunked onto the ground. With expression unchanged, he started flinging sand into the air. A cloud formed over his head. He let the grains rinse him like a shower, his stare fixated on me.
I stood up and stepped away, glancing behind my shoulder. He was kicking another boy. I went to the other corner of the playground, where a red swing awaited to be played with. It was a metal swing, which in summer—as I experimented with years later—turned hot enough to fry an egg. That winter day it felt cool and pleasant.
“Aren't you upset?” Savta asked once we had left the playground.
“No, Savta. The swing was fun, not hot at all.”
“But didn’t you get upset when the boy jumped on your castle?”
“It’s a sandcastle, you know … not a real one.”
The following morning, Savta called me to her room and opened the linen cupboard. It exuded the gentlest whiff of ironing, soap, and magic, and I knew that deep behind the stacked linens, Savta was hiding presents.
"I was very proud of you yesterday. Most people, even grown-ups, poison their hearts with agitation. … And you are only five," she said, pulling out a parcel.
I did not understand what she meant.
"Is it a book? Is it a book, Savta?" Books were my favourite present.
Savta only smiled.
Unwrapping the shiny paper revealed the image of a boy and a girl sitting on an animal made of folded paper. The boy had blond hair; the girl wore a yellow dress. I gasped. This was not an ordinary book. This was my first book in colour.
“What’s it called, Savta?”
“My Encyclopedia in Colours,” she read the big letters on the front.
I folded the wrapping paper and handed it back, for Savta to use again.
“Can you read it to me … please?”
A picture of a grey skyscraper in New York, a man wearing feathers standing in the green jungle, a red English bus; each page was a treasure of hand-drawn pictures and under each picture a caption, which Savta read over and again. She showed me the letters, how they formed words, and how the words described the scenes above them.
On our way home, Savta helped me read the road signs. She showed me “Police” written on a blue and white police car and “Taxi” on a taxi. Together we read “Grocer,” and “Barber,” and the black letters saying “Beware! Border. Enemy Area Ahead.” We read the street names: Ramban and King George. In our building, I read the neighbours’ nameplates, until, under the names of her parents, I read “Tali,” the girl I wanted to share my new skill with.
Tali was my best friend. Even skinnier than I, she always struggled when her mother brushed her wavy hair. Our mothers had become friends at the maternity ward, and shortly after, her family moved to our building.
“We’re home, Ima,” I shouted, as Savta opened the door. “I’m going to Tali.”
Sitting on Tali’s balcony, legs shot through the rails, watching the small people four floors below, I showed Tali the world in my new book. Suddenly, she jumped to her feet. “Boaz, let’s be explorers.” And just before dinner, our first expedition was conceived.
The following morning Ima left for work, leaving me with Tali and her mother.
“Boaz and I are going out,” Tali called.
“Be back for lunch and stay away from the border,” Tali’s mother answered absently, not raising her head from her cooking.
It was a mild winter day. With sandals on our feet, tembel hats in our back pockets, a tin water canteen strapped to my belt, an apple in my front pocket, and a piece of cake in Tali’s, we sprinted out of the stairway into the street.
“Which way is the border?” Tali asked.
“The sign says over there … but we can’t go; it’s dangerous.”
“That’s what explorers do, dangerous things. Come on.”
“But Tali …” I tried to protest. She was already racing down the road.
I scraped my knee as we climbed over the anti-tank concrete blocks placed along the sidewalk of Keren Hayesod Street, ready to block the road at a moment’s notice. Holding onto the vegetation, we walked around the slippery edge of the mostly empty Herodian Pool, which for over two millenniums had supplied drinking water to Jerusalem. Then we squeezed through a hole in the fence into the Muslim graveyard.
“There are dead people under these stones,” I whispered at the sight of the tombs of Saladin soldiers, who had died capturing the Crusaders’ Kingdom of Jerusalem.
“I know,” Tali said, brushing some fence rust off her shirt.
“For thousands of years… They’ll be here forever,” I said, struggling to hide the quaver in my voice.
Tali clambered up and sat on the windowsill of the Mamluk mausoleum. “I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”
“Let’s sit over there in the shade.” I pointed to a Eucalyptus tree a short distance away from the graves.
To the smell of mildew rising from the eight-hundred-year-old mausoleum, we drank water, split my apple, and shared the cake mush we had fished from Tali’s pocket. Then, looking from side to side, expecting the unexpected, we entered Mamilla, the neighbourhood on the border.
Buildings punctured by bullets arched in frozen terror over our heads, threatening to bury us.
“Give me your hand,” Tali whispered.
Our path soon ended in a mound of debris. On top, in a patch of sunlight, a tomcat was sunbathing. Black with a white apron, the feline blocked our way.
During the day, gangs of cats scavenged the garbage bins of Jerusalem. At night, their painful caterwauling blended into the percussion of pots and pans played by sleep-deprived neighbours endeavouring to chase them away. These were no ordinary cats, but fierce animals that dogs and children would not tackle. Garbage cats, we called them.
Standing still, we watched the beast, hoping it would let us pass.
It did not.
I lowered to my knee and extended a shaking hand. “Here, kitty, kitty.”
The cat lifted its tail.
“It’s just a stupid cat,” Tali said. She picked up a pebble and tossed it at the animal. The stone bounced, then rolled, missing its target. The cat hissed, arched its back and stared into Tali’s eyes. It took a step forward.
“Run,” Tali yelled.
Together we tumbled down to the street below.
The heavy protection shutters were all open. At every window women, taking advantage of the winter sun and the snipers' siesta, were hanging washing, chattering, squabbling.
Boys and girls, many barefoot, were chasing each other under the dripping washing lines that extended across the street in a game of Cops and Robbers. They wanted us to join.
“We can’t,” Tali said. We’re explorers. We’re going to the border. Do you want to come with us? You can be explorers, too.”
“But the border is just over there. There’s nothing to see. It’s boring,” one of the boys said. His name was Oded.
“Com’on Boaz. We are going. Bye,” Tali said.
We could still hear them playing, when we reached the opening in the wall, one of the many walls that shielded passersby from the Jordanian posts and turned the streets of Jerusalem into a claustrophobic maze of concrete and metal.
Tali peeped through. “Can’t see anything. Just a huge pile of rubbish.”
Belly down on the ground, my heart beating against the warm soil, we climbed up the pile until we reached the summit. Beyond layers of twisted barbed wire, beyond skeletons of houses, beyond piles of dirt covered with thistles, lay the old city of Jerusalem.
Layer upon layer, the large stones, placed by so many hands over hundreds of years, extended as far as we could see. Sunlight turned the grey wall white. Only the bluish caper bushes and the shadows cast by the ancient archer-posts provided relief from the blinding brightness. Rising above the wall, the Tower of David reached up into the empty sky. We saw no snipers.
“That’s where my mother grew up,” I whispered.
“Liar. It’s not Israel there.”
But I knew I was right.
Ima’s bedtime stories about her childhood in the Old City would pave my way to sleep and blend into my dreams. The Old City was where she had grown up, fought to defend her home, until she, Savta, and every woman and child of the Jewish Quarter had been exiled.
“I swear it’s true. Let’s ask Ima when we’re back.”
“No, we can’t tell anyone,” Tali said. “If my parents find out, I'll be grounded forever.”
“This will be our secret,” I agreed.
“Isn’t it fun being explorers? Let’s go again tomorrow.”