By Ellis Shuman
They were seated two rows ahead of me on the half-empty plane and without seeing their faces, or knowing anything about them, I could tell that they were totally out of their element. What was it? The angle of their heads? The nervous glances back and forth? The constant whispering, even though there was no one nearby? I couldn’t overhear their low-toned conversation, but noticed it was interrupted every few minutes by what sounded like forced giggles. As if they were making the most of a confusing situation. As if they weren’t exactly comfortable being in the air. As if they didn’t really belong. When one of them stood up to make her way to the bathroom, my suspicions were confirmed.
Coming up the aisle toward where I stood, stretching my legs, was a young woman—a teenager maybe, or perhaps slightly older. The red-headed girl was religious; that was quite obvious. Not modern religious, but rather Haredi. Ultra-Orthodox. Her modest blouse had long sleeves, and she wore an ankle-length faded blue skirt. Attire that would be suitable to the streets of Jerusalem but which was strange to see on a flight to Bulgaria.
“Excuse me,” she said, as she attempted to squeeze past without bumping into me. She seemed embarrassed by this request, but I could detect signs of a curious smile, despite the fact that her freckled face was half-hidden behind a blue protective mask.
I nodded and politely turned my head away. The girl’s travel companion, who I spotted regarding us from her seat, was also a religious woman. What were the two of them doing on an early morning flight from Tel Aviv to Varna? They didn’t seem the type to leisurely relax on the sandy beaches, frequent the casinos, or enjoy the nightlife of the Black Sea coastal city.
I glanced out the window at the side of the plane. All I could see were clouds, but far below us, I knew, were the islands of Greece. Within a very short time we would be landing. My friend was waiting for me at our hotel, just a short taxi drive away from the airport.
“Excuse me, again,” the girl said, returning down the aisle. “What is it? Why are you laughing?”
“It’s nothing,” I said to her. “You seem a bit excited; that’s all.”
“I am excited!”
“Is this your first trip to Bulgaria?”
“It’s my first time anywhere!”
“Really? Why are you going to Bulgaria, of all places?”
“Well, it’s one of the few destinations where you can go right now.”
“That’s true,” I admitted. With nearly the entire world on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bulgaria was designated as ‘green’, a country where Israelis could travel without the necessity of a two-week self-isolation period upon return.
“What are your plans?” I asked, “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“No, you can ask,” she replied with a giggle. “But, I’m not sure I can answer. We haven’t really made any plans. I guess we’ll decide when we land. Where to go, what to do. Any suggestions?” she asked. “Do you have any advice for someone on their first trip away from home?”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
She was about to turn away but then said, “My name is Sarah, by the way.”
“I’m Natan,” I said. In these days of corona, it wasn’t acceptable to shake hands but even in normal times, I doubt it would be allowed in this case. She was religious, and I was secular. We were both single and close encounters like this didn’t happen in her social circles.
“How long will you be in Bulgaria?”
“Four nights,” she replied. “We’ll leave on Thursday’s evening flight so that we’re home in time for Shabbat.”
“That’s my flight as well! Enjoy your stay in Bulgaria, Sarah,” I said, taking my seat so that she could continue down the aisle.
She giggled and rejoined her friend.
This would be my third visit to Bulgaria, but only the first time I had flown directly to Varna. I had visited Sofia with my girlfriend—now my ex-girlfriend—two years before, and last year I had returned with Uri, the friend I would now be meeting in Varna. Uri and I worked together at a cybersecurity firm in Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv. Uri was actually my boss, but we never let that get in the way of our friendship. We had planned, in the months following my breakup, to take another trip together somewhere in Europe. And then COVID-19 struck and our plans were canceled.
The minute the skies opened over Israel, and some airlines resumed operations, we made our bookings on the flight to Varna. Uri flew there two days before me because I needed to stay in Tel Aviv to care for my father, who was recuperating at home from a mild case of the disease. But, as soon as my sister took over from me, with assurances that my father was well on the road to recovery, I left for Varna.
Except for my father, I didn’t know anyone else who had come down with COVID-19. When Israel went into lockdown, all the employees at my company started working remotely, and it had been months since I last visited the office. I was lucky to still have a job, I knew, because Israel was in the midst of an economic crisis, in addition to the medical emergency we faced. Being stuck at home; only seeing my coworkers on Zoom; and not being able to go out to restaurants, shopping, to the theater, or even to the beach—everything was taking its toll on me, as it was on everyone. I needed to get out, to get a breath of lockdown-free air, and that was why I was so relieved to escape Israel for a brief vacation.
The flight from Tel Aviv to Varna was quick, and before I knew it, we were taxiing on the ground. I easily navigated my way through Passport Control to the baggage carousel.
“Is this where we get our suitcases?”
I turned to find Sarah and her friend standing next to me, the two of them seemingly a bit perplexed by airport procedures.
“It takes a few minutes until they start the belt,” I told them.
“Thank you,” Sarah said. She approached the belt with her friend in tow and I began pacing the hall, eager to get out of the airport.
At last the conveyor belt jerked into operation, although it made its circular route empty for several minutes. Finally, a single bag popped onto the belt, and seconds later another one followed, and then another, until suitcases were pouring out in a steady stream. But as the flight had been half empty, the last of the suitcases soon appeared and as chance would have it, this straggler was mine.
When I wheeled my suitcase toward Customs, Sarah and her friend were just ahead of me, giggling at each other’s comments like before. Each of them pulled a trolley suitcase, but Sarah’s case was slightly bigger. They dutifully followed the other passengers out of the hall, and I trailed after them.
“Come here, please.”
It was a Bulgarian Customs officer, signaling to Sarah.
“Me?” Sarah asked, looking at her friend. The other girl shrugged as Sarah hesitantly approached the officer.
I stopped to watch as the officer took hold of Sarah’s suitcase and lifted it to his table with one swift, practiced motion. Another officer joined him while Sarah stood to the side, glancing with growing concern at her friend.
I didn’t wait to see the results of the inspection. I exited the hall and made my way to the taxi stand. Having learned a thing or two on my previous visits to Bulgaria, I knew which taxis to avoid. Finally, with my suitcase in the trunk and a fee negotiated with the driver, who surprised me with his knowledge of a few words of Hebrew, I was on my way.
Uri welcomed me with a brotherly hug when I arrived at the hotel, which was near Varna’s Primorski Park, not far from the sea. After I deposited my suitcase in my room, we met up in the bar for tall glasses of refreshing Bulgarian beer.
“Natan, it’s totally empty here,” he said to me when I sat down.
“What do you mean?”
“Hardly any tourists. Apparently, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on tourism in Varna, almost as bad as it’s become in Tel Aviv.”
“What, no Russian models?”
He laughed. Ever since I broke up with my girlfriend, Uri had promised me that one day I would fall in love with a stunning model from Moscow. Or, from some other Eastern European country, as long as she was statuesque. Totally unlike my short ex-girlfriend, whose dark skin and curly black hair came from her family’s Yemenite origins.
“We may have a hard time finding any action at the city’s nightclubs.”
“Maybe we should have canceled the trip?”
“I needed to get out,” Uri said with a sigh, his statement fully aligned with my own feelings. “Israel has become a prison. Wearing masks, keeping social distance from each other. I thought things would be different overseas and Bulgaria was the only place that was open. But now I see that there’s nobody here. No one is flying around these days.”
“We’ll still have a good time!” I assured him. “The casinos are open.”
“Nothing would ever close the casinos,” he agreed, raising his beer to toast me.
Later that evening, we learned that the casinos were indeed open and eager to take our money. We showed our Israeli passports at the entrance and sat down at one of the blackjack tables. I was quick to note that in this country, masks were optional and therefore, no one wore them. A brunette with an acned face and shifty eyes began dealing cards, making small talk, and congratulating us each time we beat the house. But after an hour had passed, we lost all the money we planned to gamble and left the casino disheartened.
“We’ll win it back tomorrow,” Uri said, but we both knew this was highly unlikely.
It was never about the money. It was about being in a foreign country, doing something openly which was forbidden back home. It was about being abroad, forgetting Israel for just a few days. And it would all be over way too soon.
“Should we look for a nightclub? The concierge gave me some suggestions.”
“Let’s go. We have not even begun to drink!” I said, as we made our way up the street.
We went into one club but were dissuaded by the deafening techno music vibrating the floor and pounding in our ears. Another club we had planned to visit had its lights off and its door firmly shut. Finally, we found one where the music wasn’t so disturbing, but there were few people inside. I found the air stifling, and the atmosphere subdued, the partying tempered by the lack of tourists, the lack of spirit. Maybe it was just me. Maybe all I needed was one more drink.
The next morning, I woke with a horrific headache. It had been quite some time since I had had a bad reaction to heavy drinking, and I feared that the hangover would ruin the entire day. I looked through my bag for aspirin and then went down to the lobby in search of strong, black coffee.
“I saw an interesting news item on Ynet,” Uri said, when I joined him at the breakfast table. He handed me his phone and I saw it was open to the popular Israeli news site.
The headline read, ‘Israeli women arrested at Bulgarian airport.’
“What’s this?” I asked, but the more I read, the stronger the bad feeling in my gut.
‘Two Israeli women were detained by Bulgarian Customs for bringing an illegal substance into the country. The women, whose identities were not released to the public, were said to be from a religious community on their first visit to Bulgaria.’
“What are you talking about?”
I told him about my encounter on the plane and how the Customs officers had stopped Sarah and her friend.
“I wonder what they had in that suitcase,” Uri said.
“I wonder if they even knew what was in the suitcase,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe someone gave them something to take.”
“I’m sure Security at the airport asked them, ‘Did anyone give you anything to take with you?’ Don’t you think they would have answered that question honestly?” he asked.
“This was their first trip outside Israel. It’s strange. Maybe they weren’t thinking when checking in at Security. Is there anything more on their arrest, perhaps on some other news site?”
“I didn’t see anything.”
But later, after returning from our visit to the beach, where we had rented windsurfing gear for the day, we saw an update.
‘Two Israeli women have been arrested in Bulgaria for attempting to smuggle 30 kilograms of khat in their luggage,’ the news item said. ‘The Israeli Consul visited the women at their detention center in Varna, where the incident is under investigation.’
“What is khat?” I asked.
“Ha! I thought your ex-girlfriend would have introduced you to khat! It’s that leaf Yemenite Jews chew on, a stimulant which brings a sense of euphoria,” Uri explained. “It’s legal in Israel but considered an illegal drug in Europe.”
“Sarah and her friends were trafficking in drugs?” I said incredulously. “I find that hard to believe. I’m convinced they didn’t know what they were doing.”
“This is not the first time Israelis have been arrested serving as drug mules,” Uri pointed out. “Many of them did it unknowingly,” he added.
“Look here,” he continued, showing me another online news item. “It says that someone paid for their trip, giving them the suitcase to take to Bulgaria in exchange for free airline tickets and spending money. How else could Haredi girls afford a trip overseas?”
“They fell into a trap!” I said, but Uri had already scrolled down the site to the sports section.
The next morning when I walked into the hotel dining room, I found Uri talking in Hebrew to a middle-aged Israeli couple. The man, who looked to be my father’s age, was wearing a dark, formless suit jacket and black pants. He had a salt and pepper beard and wore a black hat, typical of the Haredim. His wife was attired in a long, modest dress; her hair may have been a wig.
“This is Natan, the Israeli I was telling you about,” Uri said to the couple.
“You saw my daughter?” the man asked, his mouth covered in a protective mask.
“Sarah. You were on the plane with her?”
“Yes, I spoke to her briefly.”
“We came as soon as we learned she was arrested,” the mother said, tears pouring down her face and dampening her own mask. “As soon as we could get on a flight.”
“The Israeli Consul helped us,” the father said. “Otherwise, I don’t know what we would have done.”
“What are they saying?” I asked, referring to the Bulgarian authorities, or to the Consul, or to anyone who knew what was going on.
“She is a scapegoat!” the father said, his voice rising. “She has been arrested for someone else’s crime. What does she know about this, what is it, drugs? Khat? Sarah knows nothing about that.”
“This was her first time abroad,” the mother said, and I nodded my head because this was what Sarah had told me. “She is only 21 years old!”
“She has never before faced the dangers of the world,” the father interrupted. “She lives a very sheltered life and doesn’t know this Facebook of yours, or anything. She doesn’t read secular newspapers or play with the Internet.”
“All she wanted was some free time, on her own, before the new academic year started,” the mother said. “And look where that got her. We should never have let her go. It’s all our fault! She is just a young girl. An innocent girl. She doesn’t deserve any of this.”
A very naive, gullible girl, I thought to myself. A girl protected by a very insular religious community. I wondered why Sarah was not yet married. Girls from the Haredi community usually married at a very young age. I kept quiet as Sarah’s distraught parents expressed their frustrations and worries.
A smartly dressed man walked up to the couple and addressed them in Hebrew. The Israeli Consul, apparently. He led them to the corner of the room where they could discuss things in private.
“Do you think they’ll be okay?” I asked Uri.
“I wonder if Bulgarian jails are as bad as Turkish jails.”
“Don’t say that!”
“This is Eastern Europe, after all.”
“Yes, but Bulgaria is more advanced now. It’s a member of the European Union.”
“Look around you, at what we’ve seen on the streets of Varna. Does this seem like the most modern country?”
“I feel so bad for her,” I said. “For both girls.”
“Natan, this is not your problem. The Israeli Consul will handle this. We’re here to have a good time.”
This was their first time in Bulgaria, their first time outside Israel. What a horrible experience! I should have warned them, but of course there was no way I could have known what dangers they were facing. If only they hadn’t accepted the suitcase. If only someone hadn’t taken advantage of their naivety.
Concern for Sarah’s fate spoiled the rest of my vacation. The beaches lost their attraction; the food was no longer as appetizing; and I was not interested in returning to the clubs and casinos. When I had a chance, I surfed through the Israeli news sites and what I saw, only upset me more.
‘The prosecution is demanding 15 years imprisonment,’ Sarah’s father was quoted as saying. ‘The girls didn’t know what they were carrying, didn’t know they were committing a crime. Now that Sarah realizes what she did was wrong—a silly mistake of trusting someone she shouldn’t have trusted—she has expressed remorse, but the girls are being held in the most difficult of conditions, alongside murderers and hardened criminals of all types.’
A religious news site had a more upsetting report. ‘The girls don’t speak Bulgarian, so even making simple requests, such as asking for water, is complicated. The girls’ health is said to be deteriorating, causing their parents to worry they will not make it out alive.’
‘We rented an apartment here,’ the mother was quoted as saying, ‘so that I can cook for her the kosher, gluten-free meals she needs. We hired lawyers, interpreters, translators. A huge expense we cannot afford.’
The news item ended with the father’s appeal for financial assistance in the family’s efforts to secure Sarah’s release.
“Let’s go back to the casino,” Uri urged me. “I have a feeling Lady Luck is about to make a visit.”
“No, I don’t feel like it.”
“Then maybe back to that club. There were some good-looking Eastern European beauties there. Maybe that type of Luck will come your way.”
“Sorry, I’m not in the mood.”
“Alright, I have no choice but to drag you down to the lobby. I am going to ply you with booze until you forget about this Haredi girl you’re so obsessed with.”
After another restless night, I woke up again with a terrible headache. Uri had left on an earlier flight, and I stayed in the hotel lobby by myself for a short while, lost in my thoughts. I pictured Sarah coming up the aisle toward me on the plane, full of excitement as she started the adventure of a lifetime. Not knowing that she was about to fall into a trap. One small mistake and a girl’s life was ruined forever.
I walked through the Varna streets, making my way towards the stunning Dormition of the Theotokos Cathedral, wondering what I could do. Donate to the legal fund? Write letters to Knesset members? I didn’t know Sarah, or her family, and their misfortune was not mine, yet I felt connected to them and their plight. Could I have prevented it? Of course not. Yet, I remembered her asking, ‘Do you have any advice for someone on their first trip away from home?’ and I didn’t offer her any.
The plane was half empty, and I sat at a window seat. Sarah and her friend were supposed to be on this flight. Would they be flying back any time soon?
I heard voices in the rows behind me, people talking excitedly in Hebrew. I turned around, imagining it was Sarah and her parents, discussing how they had secured their places on the plane at the last minute. How she had been released from prison with a strict warning. Never accept packages from strangers. Never come back to Bulgaria. Don’t be so gullible; don’t be so naive.
But it was two younger couples who, like me, had escaped Israel for a few days in a foreign country, far away from the masks, the social distancing, the closures, and the self-isolation periods. They laughed, joked, and made themselves comfortable for the short flight to Tel Aviv.
I stared out the window as the plane picked up speed on the runway. I adjusted my mask, gulping in fresh air as I prepared for my return to caring for my father, to working remotely and meeting with colleagues on Zoom, to shopping online. To my own sheltered life. To the lockdown back home.
Ellis Shuman is an American-born Israeli author, travel writer, and book reviewer. His writing has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Oslo Times, and The Huffington Post. He is the author of The Virtual Kibbutz, Valley of Thracians, and The Burgas Affair.