By: Kim Farleigh
“Hello,” Abed sang out. “Welcome to Hebron.”
“Thanks,” the tourist replied.
Palestinian dresses hung from coat hangers above a trestle before Abed’s business, red thread, in black velvet, like veins of blood.
“Want to see my flat and Old Town?” Abed asked. “There’s something interesting in my flat about the occupation. I’m tour guide.”
“Okay,” the tourist replied. “Let’s go.”
The tourist wanted information; he was prepared to pay.
Sandstone walls engulfed them, a rooftop fence ahead topped by barbed wire.
“The Israelis,” Abed said, pointing at the wire. “My flat is on line between.”
They climbed sandstone stairs to a marble landing that faced a green, iron door. The tourist bent to enter the flat. A wide opening linked two rooms. A tapestry of the Jerusalem dome covered a wall behind a woman who was repairing a dress on a sewing machine. Her ankle-length dress had short sleeves. She felt half-naked, her hair uncovered.
She dashed into the other room where a sink sat in a concrete working surface below shelves of pots and pans. The tourist sat on a bed. He could hear the woman working in the kitchen.
Abed pointed at the iron that blocked two windows beside the bed. Light entered from a facing window above the sandstone steps.
“Soldiers blocked windows,” Abed said. “On the other side is settlement.”
Abed’s eldest son went to get the tourist a drink.
“Every night they come,” Abed continued, “to see if windows stay blocked.”
Abed sat on the chair his wife had vacated. The Jerusalem Dome reflected the dream of return. Most Palestinians were banned from visiting what their forefathers had built.
“My first wife,” Abed said, “killed by Israelis.”
Abed’s blue eyes were too dry in his wide, plump face to look convincing. His curly, dark-brown hair resembled a Roman emperor’s. He had a hooked nose and semi-pale skin.
He looks Jewish, the tourist thought, feeling the flush of doubt.
“She go to check water level in roof tank. They shot her on roof.”
No doubt people had been shot indiscriminately in Hebron, but the tourist wasn’t convinced one had been Abed’s “first wife.”
The eldest son returned with the drink. The tourist sucked through the widest straw he had ever seen, width creating satisfying flow.
“He son of first wife,” Abed said. “My other son is from second wife.”
“Have they offered you money to leave?” the tourist asked.
“Yes,” Abed replied. “But we stay. We stay forever.”
Despite this nobility, the tourist liked good stories.
He finished the drink. Abed said: “Now we see Old Town.”
Outside, Abed pointed at a basketball court behind the barbed wire, the court at the same level as the bottom of Abed’s front door.
“Court is for settlement children,” Abed said. “The building behind was Palestinian hospital. But the settlers took hospital to make school for settler children. This happened many years before.”
They descended the sandstone steps. Abed stopped in front of bolted iron doors.
“These shops are mine,” he said. “But Israelis closed them. The shops are under the settlement.”
The tourist didn’t doubt that the shops were shut because of the settlement. But he suspected they were someone else’s, other people’s victimisation used for personal benefit.
The tourist observed the street’s abandoned top floors. Rusted iron bars faced black rectangles, glass gone.
“The soldiers removed all Palestinians from these places,” Abed said. “They cut water and electricity. Force people out.”
Abed closed one eye and sighted along an imaginary rifle.
“Some they hit,” he said, “to make leave.”
Aluminium huts sat above the street behind a metal fence. Israeli flags hung from the fence.
“Is where soldiers stay,” Abed said, pointing at the huts.
A yawning soldier was in a lookout post beside the huts. Spotlights dotted the lookout post’s roof beside a loud speaker. Occupations bore occupiers. All that time looking at the same streets.
He should be studying, the tourist thought, not staring.
They entered the Old Town’s oldest part. Sandstone ceilings, covered by painted-white concrete, darkened the narrow thoroughfares, windows behind green bars. The walls’ limestone-block, cellular dots resembled beige crocodile skin.
Where the curving roofs disappeared, a wall was decorated by pincer-shaped sunlight, light fingers stealthily stealing Saladin’s creation. A boy’s silhouette appeared before the pincer, featureless figures black in the eyes of the occupier.
At the end of the covered semi-darkness was a checkpoint. Behind a two-metre-high turnstile, soldiers glared from within a glass hut. They opened the turnstile. Abed and the tourist passed by the soldiers who continued glaring, eyes dark under green berets.
Abed and the tourist entered an aluminium hut. Behind a glass wall inside the hut were three soldiers, one a black woman. Black African women repress Palestinians.
Abed slotted his ID through a slot under the glass. The tourist opened his bag to extract his passport. The soldiers chanted “NO!” One waved a finger. Foreigner didn’t need to identify themselves. The only person born in Palestine had to show documents. The soldiers were French, Czech and Ethiopian.
I might arm myself, the tourist thought, and evict brunettes from Bohemia where red hair originated.
The tourist imagined asking the soldiers: “Should fifty million Christians move to Bethlehem believing they’re descended from the first Christians?”
Highlighting idiocy means your anti-Semitic.
A soldier threaded Abed’s ID back through the thin slot that connected them on either side of a bullet-proof, transparent screen. Abed and the tourist left through a side door. Another hut was behind another barbed-wire-topped fence on the left side of a road that led up to a mosque. Searchlights covered the hut’s roof beside a camera that faced the checkpoint where soldiers fought monotony, the hut soldiers observing on black-and-white TV monitors their bored checkpoint reflections, lethal tedium waiting to crack.
A soldier stared at the tourist. The occupiers spent their time staring. The tourist stared back. Occupation promotes voyeurism. The soldier could stare impolitely like a small child because superior weapons overrule decency.
Inside the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque, Abed and the tourist put their shoes on timber racks, like library shelves for shoes. The mosque’s pastel hues enhanced its tranquillity. Three-tiered chandeliers hung from twenty-metre-long chains. The sky-blue ceiling contained white floral patterns within concentric circles of blue, brown and white. The chains fell from the circles’ centres. Delicate, spectacular symmetry prevailed, everything linked harmoniously.
“A settler from America killed many people here,” Abed said, “with machine gun. Over there are holes still from the bullets.”
The mosque’s tranquillity had once covered Palestine like a seductive veil. Then the Zionists came.
Abed pointed at the bullet holes. Much blood had been spilled on the red carpet.
“Was 1994,” Abed continued, “during first morning prayers. Many people were entering. They killed the settler.”
“By backing Israel,” the tourist said, “the US can remove maniacs from American soil without being called anti-Semitic. They win both ways.”
Although Abed didn’t understand the tourist’s comment, he still said: “Of course.”
“Over there is tomb of Abraham,” he said. “There tomb of Sara. There tomb of Isaac and there tomb of Rebecca.”
The tombs, fenced-off houses under the main roof, displayed gold-painted, scrolling bars with stars above crescent moons, the houses’ roofs topped by porcelain crescent moons with gold stars, Judaism’s famous figures glorified by Islam.
Not often you see, the tourist thought, tombs of literary figures. Are we the only species that brings fictional characters to life and buries them?
The maniac had acted where Judaism and Islam were united architecturally, clever of Saladin to have made that unification, the maniac “sent by God” to wreck unity where “scum” was polluting the burial places of literary figures that He and the maniac were “genetically related to.”
Believing anything, you do anything.
Abed and the tourist re-entered the Old Town through a turnstile that only allowed one-way pedestrian traffic. The turnstile, beside a floor-to-ceiling fence, was separated by that fence from the turnstile they had gone through to reach the mosque. Both turnstiles sat in semi-darkness under white-painted, concrete roofs. Numerous alleyways shot in different directions to complicate life for attackers.
Back in sunlight, Abed said: “These places have nobody.”
The street’s top floor had smashed windows behind rusted iron bars.
“The soldiers removed the people,” he said. “Settlement is behind.”
A man was being interrogated by soldiers, black Nazi-style boots covering soldier shins, the man’s possessions between his feet. Activists from The World Council of Churches were filming the interrogation. The tourist admired the activists’ courage and conviction.
They’re truly religious, he thought, because their God promotes universal rights.
“This happens any time,” Abed said, flashing a finger at the interrogation.
“Has it happened to people you know?” the tourist asked.
“When were those flats up there abandoned?”
The tourist smiled. “The tour guide” answered all questions with: “Of course.”
A side street was blocked off by three tiers of red, green, white and blue forty-four-gallon drums. The green, iron doors of the abandoned shops along that street were bolted shut with rusting locks. The locks had had plenty of time to rust.
The abandoned street, littered with drink cartons, cardboard boxes, plastic bags and smashed glass, smelt like rot. Israeli flags drooped above the rot. Rot followed those flags everywhere.
Abed and the tourist passed under another lookout post. The tourist thought that an aluminium tube on the post’s aluminium walls should have had been shaped like a twirling frond and that the hut should have been topped by a woollen skull cap.
A camera on the post’s roof filmed the street. If you steal, the tourist thought, instead of negotiating, you have to build towers and fences in anticipation of revenge. Then you have to say that everyone wants to kill you because you’re Jewish.
A soldier standing behind barbed wire beside the lookout post stared down at the tourist as the tourist walked beside “the tour guide.” The tourist stared at the soldier who stared back, the soldier staring and staring.
His equivalents in real democracies, the tourist thought, study in more useful ways.
Abed and the tourist were now walking under a garbage-covered net that was strung across the street.
“Because settlers throw rubbish,” Abed said, “are few people on this street. The settlers also throw down water with acid.”
“Have many people been injured because of the acid?” the tourist asked.
“Has anyone died because of the acid?”
These journeys into the unknown produce more questions than answers.
A street on their left was blocked off by two tiers of two-metre-high, barbed-wire-topped concrete blocks. A painting of a blindfolded girl decorated the blocks, her mouth sewn up, the girl beside a painting of a young man, a green, white and black loud hailer near the man’s mouth, streaming Arabic trailing from the hailer.
A plastic rifle on the metal mesh above, tossed down by a Jew, symbolised a warning.
Metal awnings emerged from the street’s facades. The hooks of dress-covered clothes hangers sat in metal loops connected to metal scrolls on the awnings’ undersides. Just where the clothes hangers began to proliferate, a man behind a shoe-covered trestle said to Abed: “Has he received the magnificence of your vast knowledge?”
“Of course,” Abed replied. “Historians contact me when they want to know anything about Palestine. What do you expect from a professional tour guide?”
“Easy money,” the other man replied, “and not much else.”
Even Abed smiled as the other market traders in listening range laughed.
“I’m making an honest living,” Abed said, his irony even clear to the tourist, who didn’t understand Arabic. “I even told him that the Israelis shot my non-existent first wife on my roof. Sympathy creates wealth. Just ask the Jews.”
“It’s you,” the other man said, “who they should shoot for bringing tour-guiding into ill-repute.”
Even Abed laughed at this.
“Come on,” Abed said, “they love good stories, so why not produce them? This is the Middle East, where good stories become history.”
Laughter raged around the street.
Up the road, Abed and the tourist stopped where the sandstone stairway led to Abed’s flat.
The tourist extracted fifty shekels from his back pocket. Abed said: “It’s two hundred.”
The tourist laughed and said: “Two hundred! For five minutes of information! You’re a comedian.”
Abed smiled sheepishly. For once, his blue eyes displayed warmth.
“Yes, two hundred,” he said. “I took an hour from business for this.”
“You’re more expensive than Europe,” the tourist replied, laughing. “Two hundred for five minutes of information!?”
“This not Europe,” Abed said. “This Hebron. We very expensive.”
“I’ve noticed,” the tourist replied. “And you’re one of the world’s highest paid comedians. I’ll give you a hundred if you tell me how old the mosque is.”
“Mosque has six thousand years,” Abed replied.
The tourist’s head went back, titillation roaring from his mouth.
“Magnificent,” he said, handing over a hundred shekels. “Just like Suleiman.”
He smiled going up the street. A teenage boy, looking at him fearfully, wondered if he was a demented settler, the teenager now old enough to understand his environment. His young brother was still asking questions like: “Why do soldiers stop us from moving?”
How do you respond to that without creating prejudices?
Six grand, the tourist thought, grinning, people flashing past him in the market.
He knew Abed wanted to say six hundred, but the exaggeration epitomised “the tour guide,” the tourist thinking: Saladin controlled the locals by convincing them that Abe & Co were buried where Sal got them to reconstruct the city. They would have wanted to have believed it anyway because myths ignite business. Just ask the Israelis.
Myths still remained “facts” in the twenty-first century, research-crushing belief causing Americans to move to Hebron to be surrounded by people they detested and who detested them. Imagine the inspiration you would need to do that, the euphoric recalcitrance required, the judiciary cultivating this joyous bitterness as bitter towards universal rights as those who choose Hebron over New York.
Isaac Goldberg was among the euphorically recalcitrant. He had seen God’s twelve-million-light-year-long fronds framing God’s penetrating, black eyes, God telling him: Liberate Hebron!
God’s voice’s volume wavered, for it had travelled fifteen billion light years in just forty-six seconds. Even God has to upgrade technology.
Goldberg rose from bed renewed. Imagine how meaningful life would be if you received commands from Him, invitations to the Oval Room nothing by comparison.
Goldberg left his New York gold business that glorious morning to his cousin who asked: “Is this a good idea?”
“I’ve been summoned,” Goldberg replied.
Their black hats were almost touching. They weren’t the only people who thought black was fashionable. Goths, heavy-metal fans, waiters and butlers also loved ebony; but nobody saw black and white as purely as Goldberg, who dreamt about making Palestine black and white. Differences existed to be eliminated and God had given Goldberg the right to eliminate. Goldberg had seen God’s mica eyes beneath ebony eyebrows that slanted upwards to the bridge of a prominent nose in a face of austere conviction in his bedroom window. Such visions produce action.
“Look, Issy,” Goldberg’s cousin said, “if you don’t like it there, come back. No one’s going to hold that against you, okay?”
Isaac patted his cousin on the shoulder. He couldn’t blame his cousin for failing to understand his mission’s significance. Isaac had been instructed to sacrifice himself for “universal justice,” his significance beyond the grasp of ordinary men.
Hitler had also felt divine providence. And like Hitler, Isaac stood above the milieu, oblivious his cousin had been attending meetings organised by Jews Against The Occupation.
“Don’t worry,” Isaac replied, “I’ve never felt so sure of anything.”
In Hebron, Goldberg heard about a house that Jews had to abandon because Israel’s Supreme Court had deemed that its Zionist occupiers had been unable to prove ownership.
“Of course it’s our house,” Isaac said. “This land has been promised to us by God!”
Even Netanyahu had said: “That house must be repopulated!”
Netanyahu detested The Supreme Court’s “dilly-dallying.” Force was what counted and Isaac agreed, force backed by the universe’s supreme commander, Fifteen-Star General Harry H. God.
“God wants us to evict those animals,” Isaac belched, at a meeting of skull caps, wide-brimmed black hats, white shirts and fronds. “We march tomorrow.”
Applause erupted. Netanyahu, ordering the soldiers to let Hebron’s settlers do whatever they liked, encouraged mob rule, a facet of tin-pot dictatorship. Netanyahu detested courts that promoted universal rights. He had jungle vision. Being Israeli Prime Minister means unleashing primitive instincts without facing the consequences of primitivism, a wonderful, lawless freedom.
Isaac contacted The Jewish Defence League who came from other settlements to “attack” the “illegally Arab-occupied house.” The Defence Leaguers wore blue, short-sleeved shirts and blue-and-white skull caps and stickers that said: God has given us the right to kill Arabs.
Isaac led the pack to the house. Insanity reveals itself like bacteria if the rule of law is removed. Each “germ” in that “aggressive bacteria” was almost identical. There were two types: white shirts and blue shirts. (Not brown). Both types chanted and waved fists, originality crushed by mob membership.
A blue shirt perched himself on a friend’s shoulders, his arms waving like windsocks in the hurricane winds of crazed belief, a rodeo for the “spiritually enlightened,” inciting the chanting mob to jump up and down. A rising iron stairway reached the house’s front door. Soldiers stood between the mob and the stairs. The house’s Palestinian owners came down the stairs, screaming at the soldiers: “It’s our house! Your Supreme Court says that!”
One of the Palestinians was a woman. A kid, fronds flapping from his skull-capped head, grabbed the iron balustrade and climbed up the wall that lined the stairway and tried grabbing the woman’s headscarf. The soldiers didn’t intervene. The woman brushed away the kid’s hand. The kid jumped back down and threw a rock, hitting the woman in the head. She placed her hands on her head and faced the sky and screamed, her voice blanketed by the settlers’ chanting.
A Palestinian boy threw a rock at the mob. A white shirt responded to this “unprovoked attack” by shooting at the Palestinian sector. The bullet, creating a crystal spider’s web, hit Abed’s wife’s head, her sons’ twisted mouths creating weird sounds before their wide-eyed mother who lay prostrate with strange limb distortions in a pool of blood.
Referring to his “first wife”, Abed had told the tourist: “She was shot fire times. From different angles.”
Can a man overcome a wife’s violent death to speak so matter-of-factly? the tourist had wondered.
Abed now wandered around, dazed with disbelief. Why didn’t I leave here, like all the others, he thought, when I could have? Why didn’t I escape from this insanity when I should have?
He knew why. He was “battling nobly against the Zionist tide,” basking in glorious, courageous resistance, refusing to accept cash from the Jews to move. Glory improves business. Women had sought out Abed’s clothing business to buy from one of the “front-line troops,” from he who had placed his people above himself. He had had his reputation to consider. No one knew how friendly he was to the soldiers who visited his flat to check that the wall between his flat and the settlement hadn’t been breached.
“Jews have every right to live here,” he often told the soldiers. “We’re one people united by the same God. That’s why I put that tapestry there.”
He always gave them food and drink, patting them on the back, calling them “stupid arseholes” after they left, proud of his fluent Hebrew, never failing to use it to his advantage.
“Let everyone believe,” he once told his wife, while counting money, “that we don’t speak to the soldiers when they come. Good reputations stimulate business.”
He even told the tourist: “I speak fluent Hebrew. Most people here won’t speak Hebrew. I believe is necessary for living.”
The tourist assumed Abed had meant survival. The tourist didn’t know how embarrassed Abed had felt when they had passed the interrogation. Abed knew those soldiers well. He didn’t want to acknowledge them in public.
“If we see each other on the street,” he often told the soldiers, “you know I can’t say hello. Some people around here are crazy!”
The tourist knew from personal experience that defiant people don’t speak the language of their occupiers, even when they can. He had learnt that in Kosovo where Kosovan Albanians always said: “We will never speak Serbian again. Never!”
Abed now couldn’t work. His employees dealt with his clothing business. No one had the insensitivity to mention fake stories about first wives. Sensitivity restricts ridicule.
Sometimes Abed went to the shop, but it was difficult facing the dresses hanging from clothes hangers. His wife had worn those dresses that swayed in the breeze that often drifted through the market, red thread covering the dresses’ chests and lining their sleeves, red like blood, like veins that would one day spill open, dresses without anyone in them, black-and-red reminders swaying like empty spirits in the breeze.
One night, he refused to open his door to the soldiers. They screamed: “Open it or we’ll blow it open.”
He lay on the bed doing nothing. His sons were with their grandparents. He just stared at the ceiling.
“Open the door!” he heard.
But it meant nothing.
BOOOOOMMM! The noise pierced Abed’s ear-drums. White smoke filled the room. A soldier pulled the tapestry off the wall before smashing the sewing machine onto the floor. Abed brushed a gun barrel aside and screamed: “Fucking arseholes!”
That machine had had extreme sentimental value.
Abed fought to get to the soldier who had smashed the machine. The butt of a machine gun smacked into his jaw, knocking him out. They cut off his water and electricity as punishment for his “terrorism.”
“Don’t do it again,” a soldier screamed at the unconscious body.
People visited Abed in hospital. He couldn’t speak. They told him how noble was his resistance, he himself surprised by the pride he now felt.
Kim has worked for NGOs in Greece, Kosovo, Iraq, Palestine and Macedonia. He likes to take risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes painting, art, bull-fighting, photography and architecture, which might explain why this Australian lives in Madrid. Although he wouldn’t say no to living in a Swiss ski resort or a French chateau. 153 of his stories have been accepted by 91 different magazines.