The Translator



The Translator

By Don Schwartz



As the next speaker rises from his chair and steps gingerly to the podium, the translator begins to sweat. He takes a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his jacket and wipes his brow, a brow that can be seen, if there was anyone to see his brow, which there is not, the translator being secluded in a high glass booth on the edge of a vast assembly hall, to be furrowed and, if one knew the translator, uncharacteristically worried, a state that usually goes along with a furrowed brow. But then so does being puzzled or having to squint, neither of which is the case with the translator who knows exactly what is going on below him on the floor of the National Assembly and who has perfect eyesight, an advantage for a translator who can then detect nuances of language by gestures and anatomical positions of the speaker, such as a tautness of the limbs dissolving into a jangled quiver of the hands, an upturned chin, a squaring of shoulders—all these the translator know adds some hint as to the speaker’s meaning. No, the translator is sweating and worried because Abd al-Rahman V of Moorland has taken the podium. Al-Rahman is about to address the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, which is meeting as usual in the National Assembly Hall in Tel Aviv. The translator, his name will be given shortly as is the custom these days in the year 2095 when names mean so little and nationality so much, alwaylain s hates translating al-Rahman into Hebrew or, as he once had to, into Eurabic, a language widely spoken in what was once called Europe and that is a blend of Arabic and German and so is a kind of Muslim Yiddish that the translator speaks fluently, as he does fifteen other languages. The trouble with al-Rahman, thinks the translator, is that he speaks too fast and never learned to enunciate. This problem is exacerbated by al-Rahman’s bushy moustache which he occasionally sucks, even when he speaks, making for a juicy-sounding Neo-Moorish Arabic and which makes the few Hebrew words that al-Rahman knows and throws out like crumbs to sparrows when he addresses the Knesset, sound like someone has opened a sluice gate in his mouth. At moments like this, the translator wishes he were not the only translator that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Levi relied upon, and that PM Levi was not the only person at the meeting of the Knesset that had a human translator, all the other attendees including Ali bin Khan, the flamboyant leader of the nascent Islamic Republic of Argentina using a computer translator, the Speculum 90 being all the rage with politicians and diplomats these days and generally considered far superior to human translators, though the Speculum 60 would do for poor nations like the Islamic Republic of Argentina and Moorland, once called Spain, computer translators making the human translator a linevanishing species like the dodo bird. And so the last human translator sits alone in his glass booth while all around him he sees electronic machinery effortlessly doing the work he is doing, the computers resting in large bowls of what appear to be water but really are a liquid called Quell that increases their speed by a factor of a thousand and which oddly enough is a derivative of a shampoo used in the 20th century to treat pubic lice.
The translator leans forward in his booth as al-Rahman begins to speak. The translator needs neither earphones nor a microphone to hear the President of Moorland, the glass walls of his booth designed by Israeli MX 50 to perfectly accept and amplify sound from the assembly hall. His own voice is broadcast at high frequency directly from the booth into a tiny receiver that PM Levi wears in his hair just above his right ear like a microscopic barrette, the frequency stepped down so PM Levi can hear the translator’s very own voice, which is pleasant and commercial grade and which the PM has grown to love as if the voice were somehow the voice of reason in PM Levi’s own head. It is a voice that makes all foreign dignitaries sound the same and hence reduces both friends, of which there were few, and foes, of which there are many, to a common denominator, a common denominator which, because of the translator’s inflections and intonations, sounds magnanimous, approachable, even vulnerable. The translator begins translating al-Rahman, who is saying what he usually says, that Israel needs to give up land if they want peace. The speech goes on for twenty minutes, and soon the translator sees that the PM is beginning to doze, and so he does one of those things that no machine can do, he begins to tell the PM a simple joke, not off-color or mean-spirited, usually something ethnic involving a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah, a joke designed to get the PM’s mind back on track. When the joke is finished, the translator sees the PM perk up and glance in his direction. It is a special moment for the translator, a moment that makes his whole job worthwhile, the long hours of listening to tiresome rhetoric, the isolation of the glass booth, that “Last of the Mohicans” feeling that once resulted in him getting, in an act of uncharacteristic bureaucratic jocularity, a leather stocking from the government’s Gift Disbursement Office. Good, he thinks, he has brightened the day for the PM, a man he respects. After twenty more minutes, al-Rahman finishes speaking, then four other foreign dignitaries stand up and give speeches calling for Israel to give up land for peace, and then the meeting is adjourned. The translator leans back in his chair. He is spent. His arms loll at his sides. The computers have turned off. An aide to the PM walks by his booth, taps on the glass and gives him a thumbs-up sign. The translator nods, and he wonders to himself, when will it all end?
Out on the street outside the National Assembly Hall the air smells of burnt carbon and ignited gas. He hears the sounds of aircraft but can see nothing, the tall buildings obscure all but a patch of sky, and that patch is the color of blood oranges. It must be sunset, thinks the translator, quite a long day, and he stops at the cart of a sidewalk vendor and gets himself a kosher hot dog, a Vienna Red Hot as the sign says. Just Like in Chicago, the sign says, though in Hebrew, and the translator takes the vendor’s word for it, having never been to Chicago or even outside of Israel, the risks of travel being too great for him, but having heard of Chicago, of course, the translator having book knowledge of much of the world. And so the translator asks the vendor for a hot dog with the works, including hot peppers which he knows he should not eat, but which he orders because his son once worked in the kibbutz greenhouses where the peppers were grown, all that before the blast, the fifth intifada, and the vendor says, How did things go today? And the translator says, The same, this time they want us to give up Herzliya, and the vendor says, They are squeezing us to death, and the translator answers, What can we do?, and shrugs. Tell Menachem Levi to stand firm, the vendor says. Tell him if he wants my vote in the next parliamentary election, he must not give up another acre, not another acre, do you hear me. First we give up the Golan Heights, then Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, then the Negev, the desert, the soul of the country, why, the state of Israel is now just Tel Aviv, I mean, Israel is smaller than Chicago, and I know, because I once visited Chicago, and speaking of Chicago, these steamed buns which you seem to like so much are exactly like the ones they sell in Chicago, and these Vienna hot dogs are flown in fresh daily from Chicago, which, thank God, even in Spanish--the United States as you know now called the Estadios Unidos--is still spelled Chicago, so I don’t have to change my sign, which I would never do anyway, and this pickle relish is made by hand using a formula developed at Superdawg in Chicago on Milwaukee Avenue at Devon and Nagle, now Nogales. So look, I know from Chicago. The translator shakes his head, he has heard all this story before, the vendor is a good man but tedious, and so the translator says, I’ll talk to Menachem Levi, and that brightens the vendor’s day, as if he has an ally in the government and is not powerless and unable to have his opinion heard, even though the translator knows full well that no one listens, not even to him except if he tells the right joke in the right way at the right time while translating.
The translator walks to his apartment in Jaffa, the old quarter. It is unsafe to take public transportation, the rockets’ random path death’s uncertainty, though some people still do, the brave ones, the translator thinks; they risk the buses. He passes soldiers on patrol and young people going to the Dolphinarium, a popular gathering site near the oceanside boardwalk that has been blown up and rebuilt twenty-five times over the last fifty years, the number proudly displayed on a digital sign, much like the translator has read on the old McDonald’s chain in the former USA--how strange to think of Ricardo Montalban III, as U.S. President--to display how many hamburgers they had sold when the franchise was young, and before synchronized attacks on non-kosher outlets around the world forced the chain to shut down. The translator’s neighborhood is quiet at night, a blessing he thinks, no one is making speeches, no one is gesturing, no one has an axe to grind. The translator uses the security retina scan next to the front door of the apartment, gets a complimentary glaucoma test, enters the lobby, and says good evening to the guard, who asks, What piece of land did we give up today? To which the translator says, Nothing yet, but if you own property north of Tel Aviv, excuse me, Israel, I would sell it, and trudges up the five flights of stairs to his apartment because the old Bauhaus elevator is not working. The translator puts saliva on the tip of his index finger and inserts the finger into a finger hole, rudely called by some a spit hole. His DNA is read, the door opens, and the translator is inside, the lights going on automatically, the draperies opening slowly to reveal the Mediterranean Sea dotted with craft of various sizes all lit up and sparkling like diamonds on black velvet. Before the translator can pour himself a drink--he usually has guava juice and honey for his throat--his phone rings, a twittering sound like the hungry call of a baby bird in a nest, a small bird, perhaps a Moroccan rock dove with a gag over its mouth. This is the sound the translator set the machine to make because the translator does not like loud noises.
Mr. Caleb?, asks the caller. And now we know the translator’s name, though not his last name, because, unfortunately, the caller has no clue that Caleb is the translator’s first name and not his surname. The caller is with a call center in Mumbai, and so calling our translator Mr. Caleb is like calling someone Mr. Bob, though to be fair to the Indian placing the call, the translator’s last name, Ben-Ami, is a relatively new cognomen. Yes, this is Caleb Ben-Ami, the translator says. The voice on the telephone--the telephone looks nothing like a telephone, it looks more like a music box, and in fact, when the lid of this small box is opened to answer the phone, a tiny holographic figure that Caleb Ben-Ami, or Bemi as he is called at work, has chosen--a Degas ballerina in a pink tutu--appears and mimes the meaning of the caller’s message. One moment please, says the caller from the call center in India, and Bemi waits, thinking, who could be calling me on Friday night, a holy night? Though Bemi is not religious, he still lights candles because that’s what his son would have wanted, his son having been a student of the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah, and even at fifteen years of age the precocious boy, who was enthralled by the golem legend, was exploring the Kaballah, particularly the Sefer Yetzirah, The Book of Creation, always wanting to see the original copy of the book, which he believed held more secrets than the various incarnations, the original last seen in the possession of the Spanish rabbi Moses de Leon of Avila, circa 1300 A.D, the book now probably in storage in a vast warehouse in Mayrit, once know as Madrid, residing in neglect along with all the country’s other books, all except the Qur’an, the main currency of thought.
A new voice comes on the phone and Bemi recognizes the voice immediately. It is the voice of Abd al-Rahman V, and al-Rahman, who of course is in Tel Aviv, says, Mar Ben-Ami, using the Hebrew word Mar which is short for Mister, a pleasure to finally speak to you, I have heard much about you; in my country you are called the last human translator, the one man who can not be replaced by a machine, the John Henry of translation. Bemi doesn’t know what to say, he is thrown by the flattery and the John Henry allusion, knowing that al-Rahman is referring to the American tale of the man who drove steel spikes for the railroad and, when told that he and other steel drivers like himself were going to be replaced by a steam hammer, challenged the machine to a race and won, though he died in the process, a heart attack probably, though these days foul play is always suspected. And Bemi says, I am honored that you would call me, what can I do for you?, an answer that is direct, but the translator has been talking all day and so does not want to waste words. Let me be as direct as you are, says al-Rahman. I would like your services.
The translator is suddenly speechless. He pauses and watches the Degas ballerina hologram mime a man about to step over a precipice. Bemi finally says, What do mean you want my services, and al-Rahman says, As you probably know, the ninety members of the Organization of Islamic States are holding their annual meeting in Mayrit next week, the capital of Moorland. It is an honor for Moorland to host such a meeting, with ninety members of the Organization and only one meeting held each year in a different country--of course there are hundreds of committees that meet throughout the year--Moorland may not host another meeting for ninety years and by then who knows how many more Islamic countries there will be?, so, anyway, I want to do a bang-up job. Here a shiver inadvertently goes up the translator’s spine, bang-up being a word that disturbs him greatly coming from an Arab. And so, continues al-Rahman, I would like you to come to Mayrit and serve as my personal translator. The translator can feel his head begin to spin.
He sits on a chair made out of cork and digs his nails into the material, something he never does, the translator having no tics or nervous habits like doodling or chewing Styrofoam, which has actually been shown to prevent cavities, and after a moment he answers, The Israeli government would never approve, I am Prime Minister Levi’s personal translator, he never holds a meeting with foreign dignitaries without me. And now Bemi can hear al-Rashad laugh a cunning laugh that the ballerina mime actually mimes by showing a mouse scurrying along the floor then suddenly getting his tail caught in a trap that springs shut. That has been taken care of, says al-Rahman, I have spoken to PM Levi and he has agreed to let you come to Mayrit for one week to serve as my personal translator at the Arab League Summit, and the translator feels for a moment like he has been betrayed, sold down the river, and the ballerina mime actually looks like she is paddling a canoe that goes over a waterfall.
I don’t know what to say, says Bemi, who realizes that he has already said this and so is not sounding very bright or quick on his feet, which is fine because he is not trying to impress al-Rahman; I can’t believe PM Levi would agree to such a thing, to which al-Rahman replies, Believe, Bemi, if I may call you Bemi, believe, among politicians, anything is possible, and the translator blurts out, What have you given PM Levi in return?, a question he knows is rather impertinent, but again he is a translator not a diplomat, and besides, Bemi wants to know what his services are worth on the open market, maybe he’ll go independent or ask for a raise. And al-Rahman says, Herzliya, and the translator says, We already have the city, it is part of Israel. Yes, I know, says al-Rahman, but for how long? I have arranged with your PM Levi to have the Organization forgo asking Israel to cede the land to West Jordan for one year. And Bemi says, How can you speak on behalf of West Jordan, and al-Rahman says, You know as well as I do that West Jordan is a puppet state, a fact that the translator cannot dispute, the land of West Jordan having changed hands many times over the last hundred years, having once been called the West Bank, then Palestine, then Jordan, then in an odd historical recurrence Trans-Jordan, and then, for a short time, a British colony called New Wales, then finally becoming the somewhat stable state West Jordan that unfortunately lacked any fossil fuel resources and whose main export product was non-sectarian hand puppets, particularly Punch and Judys.
So the translator says, What if I refuse?, an answer that al-Rahman seems prepared for. Of course, that is your right, I wouldn’t want you to come to Mayrit against your will, your PM Levi has told me that the final decision is yours, but let me say, there may be something I can do for you, I have some power you know, isn’t there something you want, perhaps a Moorish home in Majorca, an Arabian stallion, a copy of the Gutenberg Bible--we have one in a warehouse in Mayrit. And suddenly the translator sees the work of some mysterious hand, the universe has opened up to him, even the ballerina mime seems to know this as she looks with wonder at the heavens and then falls to her knees as if she has seen the face of God. And so Bemi says, Yes, there is something I want, and yes, it is in the warehouse, but it is not the Gutenberg Bible, though you can throw that in if you want to. What I want is a book called The Book of Creation, have you heard of it? And now there is a pause on the caller’s end. The ballerina mime looks up and shrugs her shoulders as if to say, I don’t know what’s going on. Bemi wonders if al-Rahman is reconsidering his offer, perhaps thinking the Speculum 60 is not so bad after all, even though the Speculum 60 makes a hash of Arabic spoken with a New Zealand accent, and so Bemi begins to worry because now he really wants to be al-Rahman’s personal translator and he thinks back on the conversation they have had and wishes he hadn’t said, I don’t know what to say, so many times, and had not been so blunt, and thinks that not only will he never get his hands on the original copy of The Book of Creation but he has probably also lost Herzliya to boot.
After a long pause that has the ballerina mime doing cartwheels--and here it should be noted that Bemi cannot help but notice how anatomically accurate this small holographic figure is--Al-Rahman says, You drive a hard bargain, Mar Ben-Ami. I have heard much of this book and of the golem legend that sprang from it, the golem of Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the chief rabbi of Prague in the late sixteenth century. And at the word golem the ballerina mime begins a stiff-legged walk with her arms straight out in front of her as if she were doing an impersonation of the Frankenstein monster. Al-Rahman says, the Rabbi Loew was a renowned tzaddik, a pious and righteous man, and a Kabbalist; he and son-in-law and one of his best students went down at night to the banks of the Muldaur River and fashioned a mighty creature from the mud, from the mud and from the secret knowledge of the Kabbalah given by this book. The ballerina mime pretends to dig up mud and fashion what looks like a sand castle. Bemi says, You know your history, first John Henry, now Rabbi Loew. And al-Rahman chortles, Game show knowledge, but Bemi thinks not.
Al-Rahman continues. The legend of the golem of Prague, says al-Rahman, tells how Rabbi Loew brought to life a creature from the mud of the riverbank, a creature of great strength whom he created to protect the Jews of Prague from the attacks of the Christians who accused the Jews of a blood libel, that is, of killing Christian children and mixing their blood with the flour and water to make matzoh, the unleavened Passover bread, an absurd statement if there ever was one, says al-Rahman, since no one has ever seen a red matzoh. And here the translator is pleased to know that al-Rahman doesn’t have this particular prejudice, and so begins to warm to al-Rahman, who goes on to say, After the golem of Prague did his work, Rabbi Loew removed one letter from his forehead and changed the word emet, which he had written on the golem’s forehead at the time he created him and which in Hebrew means truth, to met, which means death, and the golem staggered and fell to his knees and pleaded, Father don’t do this to me, but Rabbi Loew was firm and unrelenting. The golem, who was growing larger every day and scaring people and eating Rabbi Loew out of house and home, had served his purpose and collapsed into clay, and Rabbi Loew and his two assistants hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of clay up into the attic of the synagogue, where the golem rested.
Al-Rahman pauses again then says, You won’t be trying to bring the golem back to life, would you? To which Bemi answers, I am a translator, not a wizard, besides, my son was the believer, not I. Yet, says al-Rahman, if you had this book, perhaps you would give to Israel a champion who would say no to all our demands. For in chapter three of The Book of Creation it is written--With the three mother letters, A, M, SH, evil can be balanced with good, strength with weakness, resolve with concession. And Bemi says, How do you know this?, to which al-Rahman answers, I am Abd al-Rahman the Fifth, I know all things, and the ballerina mime struts like Il Duce and pretends to make the trains run on time. Abd al-Rahman’s answer doesn’t get much traction with Bemi, who now wonders if al-Rahman is a blowhard and whether he really wants to talk to him for a week straight, even though he would not really be talking to him, but still, his voice would be in al-Rahman’s head. And suddenly Bemi gets an idea: perhaps he can deliver subliminal messages to al-Rahman, why not, it has been done before, several human translators forty years ago in Russia once tried such things, all of them either executed or exiled to frigid climes, their mischief ushering in the age of computerized translation; still, there is a chance here for helping spread peace throughout the world, or, at a minimum, at least lifting the ban on bullfighting in Moorland. So, Bemi says, do we have a deal? And al-Rahmad answers, Yes, and the ballerina mime rejoices, throws her arms into the air, and collapses ballerina-like in a heap of holographic tulle.
After the translator closes the telephone box, he goes and opens all the windows of his apartment. The apartment is stuffy and the air outside is pleasant and balmy, the sea exerting a positive influence over the old quarter of Jaffa, a city founded by Egyptians and Phoenicians over four thousand years ago and now mostly skyscraper housing. Bemi changes out of his work clothes into loose-fitting silver slacks and a dark blue polo shirt made in China, where all the world’s clothing is now made and where polo has never been played except for one exhibition game held in 2027 after the fall of Taiwan when the head of Taiwanese President Lu was used as the ball, the game scheduled to go a full eight chukkas but lasting only six chukkas because the President’s head would no longer roll, plus the ponies began to shy away from the head, which was spongy and covered with flies. Bemi sees that the MAK machine has already programmed a plastic card for him from al-Rahman. The translator takes the card and turns the white and blue transparent plastic over in his hand. Perhaps this is my future, he thinks, and maybe the future of Israel, and then he scans the card in his scanner and sees that his plane tickets and hotel reservations and complete week-long itinerary in Mayrit, including a lunch at the Palace on Wednesday and a guided tour of the warehouse on Thursday, are all programmed into the card along with 5000 Murphys, the oddly named international currency. The translator takes the thin plastic card and places it in his pocket where he finds an antidepressant mint he took from Café Trieste after dinner the other night with Flo, his sometimes girlfriend, Flo being a zaftig cyborg who was head of the Shore Patrol and who has one infra-red eye. He puts the mint in his mouth and immediately feels better. He climbs a library ladder and takes down his son’s collection of golem stories, a collection dealing with the mythical creature that al-Rahman described so well in his conversation with Bemi, though al-Rahman did not mention, nor did he have any need to mention, that the Golem of Prague was not the only golem ever alleged to be created by man, there being other stories of golems. For instance in the third century, Rabbi Rava of Mehoza, a city on the Tigris located near the Malkha River, created a golem and sent it to his friend Rabbi Zera, a man with little mirth. Rabbi Zera thought the creature that came to him was a practical joke from Rabbi Rava, who was given to practical jokes, Rabbi Rava once posting an edict on the door to the Talmudic Academy declaring all beards were to be shaven by sunset. Rabbi Zera told the golem to return to the dust where he belonged, which the golem did, and Rabbi Rava never forgave Rabbi Zera, and the next day painted his house red, a color in the Levant that symbolized cannibalism. Then there is the story of the prophet Jeremiah and his son Ben Sira partaking of too much honeyed wine and creating a golem in the belief that Adam himself was a golem. King Nebuchadnezzar’s own idol turned into a living golem when the King set a diadem on the idol’s head. Unfortunately, the diadem had been stolen from the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the golem that was created turned out to be a kleptomaniac. The prophet Micah made a golden calf that could sing and dance and whistle a strange tune called Dixie. Bezalel, who designed the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant, which is still stored to this day in Washington, D.C., now called Distrito Columbia, knew how to combine letters of the Hebrew alphabet to duplicate Creation and in a moment of longing made a golem in the shape of a woman who had scorned him at a temple social. And then there was Abraham Abulafia who could make a man out of a spoonful of earth by blowing the earth over an ordinary dish of water. Unfortunately, the golem made by Abraham Abulafia was quite small and totally useless as a protector of the Jewish people but did prove helpful in cleaning drains. The list goes on and on. Elizabeth Tuttle of West Virginia once crocheted a golem. Rabbi Vernacular of the village of Read, Norway, made a golem by stretching sacred parchment across reindeer antlers. And young Barry Reiner, a failing student at Yeshiva University of New York, made a golem out of two hundred pounds of creamery butter to confront his teachers.
The translator takes the volume to a chair by the window. He feels the breeze on his face. He wonders about the morality of creating life from inert matter. He wonders if a golem has a soul and if so, is it murder to destroy a golem, especially one who can talk and wants to remain alive and who has learned proper table manners. The translator dares go no further than wondering, knowing he is no philosopher or theologian, and so his ideas about life and death would be pedestrian at best. Still, he has known death. He thinks about his murdered son and his wife who died of grief. Then he thinks about his girlfriend Flo who sees death nightly in the course of her job. The translator thinks about the last time he saw Flo. She was wearing worsted trousers and a tight blouse or chemise; the name is not important since both words are of French origin, a language hardly ever spoken any more, a stinging rebuke and a fitting come-uppance, the translator thinks, to centuries of Gallic linguistic arrogance. And he wonders if he should tell Flo that he will be gone for a week; she might worry if she doesn’t hear from him, though probably not, there is no time for worry as she cruises the shoreline of Israel at night, her infra-red eye scanning the sea for terrorists. Flo is a strong woman, a captain in the Patrol, and besides, she has other boyfriends, all the soldiers love her, the translator being the only civilian in her life. So no, he will just go, slip away. He is a man alone, in and out of the glass booth.
The translator picks up a jacket and leaves his apartment. He wants to hear the terrible noise of the legless men outside the walls one more time before he leaves for Moorland. Outside he finds the streets of Jaffa nearly deserted; on Friday night families stay in or go to shul, a place Bemi only went when his son was alive, not that he lost his faith when his son was blown apart, nothing so dramatic. The translator is a man of languages who receives the world as it comes, and takes no liberty nor embellishes, and so in his glass booth translates exactly what he hears and infers no God or Heaven he cannot experience, taking little or nothing on faith, but this night he begins to wonder about many things, not just the Golem of Prague but the odd synchronicity of al-Rahman’s offer, his own daring in asking for The Book of Creation, and his yearning to have his son back.
The translator’s thoughts are interrupted by the sight of a group of mental patients and doctors, no doubt from an asylum on Allenby, a street where all the mental hospitals are now located, Allenby traffic causing more than its share of breakdowns, and so walk-ins are welcome. The doctors and patients are gathered around a grove of Judean Date Palms near Jaffa’s red and white striped lighthouse. Both doctors and patients are pulling the dates off the trees and eating them almost as quickly as they can pick them. The group is seeking courage, as the translator knows only too well, having seen this spectacle many times over the last five years, the effects of the dates strongest on certain nights of the year, this evidently being one of those nights. One of the doctors calls out to Bemi, Join us, Eat some dates, they are delicious. And the translator says, I have all the courage I need, thank you, and the doctor laughs. Does anyone have the courage they need?, he asks, and the translator thinks of the origins of this grove of Judean date palms, how the seeds of these palm trees were discovered in 1975 during an archeological excavation of the mountain fortress of Masada, the place where Jewish rebels chose suicide over capture by Roman legions in the year 73 B.C.E., and how the seeds were germinated in 2005 and how now, ninety years later, though the fledgling palms were still juveniles--Methuselah the Judean date palm’s sobriquet—they were capable of producing dates, and had been for five years. Come, says the doctor again, gobbling down dates, mental health is a question of courage, he says, and the translator stops. Courage, he repeats absently. Yes, he had read that it had been scientifically proven that garden variety neurotics who ate dates from the seeds of the Judean date palm found at Masada were five times more likely to exhibit courage as those who did not, the study performed in a double blind experiment at the Hadassah Medical Center, formerly of Jerusalem, now of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem being a closed Arab city like Mecca. And so the translator, thinking of his first trip out of the country, goes over to the tree and picks a date. To courage, says the doctor holding up a date, and the translator eats a date and picks another and repeats the toast, To courage, and then thinks, I bet I get diarrhea tomorrow, there are risks associated with courage, but keeps eating dates anyway, and having eaten what he believes to be the right amount of dates to get him through the next week, continues his walk until he reaches the wall around the land of Israel, where he stops and listens.
At first the translator hears nothing. The wall is concrete with a titanium core and quite tall, three times higher than the translator, who is 1.8 meters tall, a mystical number according to his son, and on top of the wall there is razor wire, making the wall a formidable barrier which runs along the perimeter of Israel, moving ever inward as the borders shrink. In fact, the land concessions take place so frequently that rollers have been put under the walls to make them easier to move. The original wall, thinks the translator, was designed over a century ago to keep terrorists out, but now the tightening wall has made Israel a ghetto nation, an irony of sorts, though the translator cares little for irony. The translator strains his ears, an odd expression, making one think that if he listened any harder he might rupture an eardrum, and in the cool night air with the city lights behind him and the lapping of the sea off in the distance, he hears the first rumble, and thinks, they are coming--the army of legless men on skateboards lashed together, moving in their frenzied way, iron rings in their hands propelling them ever forward. Extinction one step away. The translator walks along the wall, moving from the sea and towards the noise, which is still quite faint. He reaches out with his hand and touches the wall. The concrete is rough with tiny stubbles like the face of a man who has not shaved in several days. Here and there the wall makes a sudden zig or zag, and the translator thinks, this is where a deal was brokered, a place where the wall corresponds to a geopolitical concession. And the translator, who is no historian, who knows nothing but languages, thinks about the ghettos of the Jews, and knows that the word ghetto comes from the Italian word getto, a word that is derived from a Venetian word for an iron foundry, the first Jewish ghetto having arisen in Venice in 1516 on a tiny island in the city of Venice where an iron foundry stood and where Jews were allowed to live and even leave, as long as they were back before sunset so they could be locked into their ghetto at night, the Venetians generally treating them like they were a subspecies of werewolf. The translator also knows that the word i in Moroccan Arabic is mellah, and in German is Judengasse, a word that looks the way it should, the translator thinks, given the gas part of gasse.
Now the translator hears the noise outside the wall getting louder. He thinks of other ghettos, the ghettos of the last century, Warsaw and Lodz and Bialystok and Czestochowa and Vilna. And now the noise is rushing towards him like a cavalry charge, which it resembles, and he thinks of how in 1290 the Jews were not allowed to live in England, and in 1394 the Jews were driven out of France, and in 1492 the Jews of Spain were given one-way tickets to points east. The noise now is so loud that the concrete wall begins to vibrate. The translator hears the spinning of millions of tiny wheels; they are coming, he thinks, the army of legless men, the army of the half-soldiers, as the Syrians call them, these men who lost both legs in religious or territorial wars both big and small all over the world, and who the Syrians hire to patrol the walls around Israel, not so much to make sure the Israelis don’t leave, which of course they can do anytime they want to by plane or by boat, but to make them feel like they are trapped inside, a psychological tactic, a way of creating fear. And so the army of legless men, there are estimated to be a quarter million--the Syrians feed them by dropping hay-like bundles of food from trucks and pay them less than ten Murphys a year in wages--rage up and back at night along the concrete wall surrounding Israel, creating a sound that most Israelis find terrifying and soulless, a noise the Devil might make if Jews believed in the Devil or Satan or Lucifer, which they don’t, though many think of converting to Catholicism so they can get holy water and sprinkle it around their houses. And once a child accidentally fell over the wall and you could hear the pack of legless men descending on him, the scene made all the more horrifying for being invisible to the Israelis, the sound of clanking wheels and ripping flesh and guttural cries, the yips and yowls of a pack of jackals, rising up and over the wall, yes, all of this haunts the sleep of Israelis. And yet Bemi, mild-mannered and circumspect, oddly enough finds the noise thrilling and ethereal, the sound conjuring up for him migrating herds of African game, wildebeest or antelope. And even more than the sound of the approaching army, the translator loves the way the earth shakes as the army roars by, how the very tree leaves flutter, how there is a sense of apocalypse, of some great tomorrow in the making.
And so the translator, who leaves for Moorland on the first plane at dawn, thinks almost wistfully, his whole body vibrating like the wall--Ah Israel, how I will miss this place.                        
Copyright © Don Schwartz 2012


Don Schwartz grew up in the American Midwest and went to college at Washington University in St. Louis. He taught creative writing at the UC Davis Extension for nearly ten years and now teaches at the Davis Art Center. In November 2011, he won the Fulton Prize for fiction for the short story “The Map.” He is currently working on a novel about a Costa Rican parrot that can tell the future. 

Please click here to donate to  
Tax receipts will be provided for both American and Canadian donations.

Please click here if you would like to join our mailing list.