A Local Affair
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Hadara Lazar
Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
He bent over the grapevines. If, from the far end of the garden he heard the small gate creak on its hinges, he didn’t move. Like an animal frozen where it stands in the hope no one will see it or approach it, Dinna thought.
It’s me, she called, waving at him, and her father put down the dripper and slowly turned his thick nape, crimson-brown in contrast to the gray shock of hair. His eyes lingered on her for a moment, then shifted back to the vines. In the first row were the young vines he had planted several years ago, cuttings from the family vineyards in Zichron that the bank had forced him to sell. Dinna asked if they would bear fruit this year and he showed her the grapes, still hard and sulphurized.
Don’t stop talking, keep asking about the vines, Dinna told herself. If she mentioned the meeting with Ibrahim Mahdi now, she didn’t have a chance, her father would ignore it, simply not answer her just as he doesn’t answer most of the questions put to him, so she asked what species the young vines were. Muscat Alexandroni, he replied, and Dinna noted that the mature vines he’d planted here were the same species. They’re what we’ve always grown, he said, and she wondered if those vines were still there on the slopes of the hills east of the village. The present owner of the vineyard had most likely planted the new seedless species in their place, and she asked where the Arabs who had worked in the vineyards came from. Sindiyani, her father replied, from the same clan as Abu Maher and Fatmi.
Fatmi, Abu Maher, when did they leave?
They left and came back.
What happened to them?
They died, he said. He was still bent over looking at something under the vines: a heavy face, folds of flesh red from the heat, only his nose seemed to be made of something solid because of the curved bone, a slight curve very near the bridge, the curve that she, Dinna, had inherited from him.
And their children?
He was silent.
They’re in the country? she asked.
And after a while she added, you haven’t heard from them over the years? Her father was now examining the holes in the dripper.
Where are you coming from?
Avinoam stirred the dry soil with his finger. No water pressure again, he said and put down the dripper. Shaul didn’t want me to talk to you, Dinna said, why? He must have told you about the meeting with Ibrahim Mahdi. Why did he suddenly show up?
His hand supporting him on the ground, he raised himself slowly, his movements measured, and stood in front of her. What does Mahdi want? she asked, why did he go to Shaul? Avinoam looked at her, his unfaded blue eyes full of sun. You know him? Dinna asked, and he turned his head to Hanadiv Street.
Do you want to go out?
Avinoam didn’t answer.
You used to take strolls here once, we’d walk to the water tower.
The falcons are gone already.
And he turned to water the vines with a hose. They were all he took care of now. The beds of seasonal flowers were empty, bushes and creepers grew wild, and when Dinna once asked him why he didn’t water the whole garden, he’d said, whatever grows, grows, and pointed to the pine trees. Cyclamens had still blossomed there every winter. The many bulbs he brought from the hills back then had proliferated over the years, and the cyclamens had blossomed in crowded bunches among the pine needles. Like on the mountain, he’d said, calling the Carmel hills “the mountain.”
In Zichron Yaacov, they’d called one hill with vineyards and olive groves Leitner Mountain, another cultivated hill was called Shechter Mountain, and the one behind the winery, Zober Mountain, all names of farmers from the village’s earliest days, men Avinoam scorned. He, after all, was not a member of a founding family. His father, Arieh Glickson, didn’t immigrate to Eretz Israel until a few years after Zichron Yaacov had been established, and he didn’t come there from Russia as a farmer, but as a member of the Zionist movement, Hibbat Zion, and he came to work the land, a student in the Arbeite Schule sent to labor like a fellah in the fields. He had no great liking for Baron Rothschild, the farmers’ benefactor, though he married the daughter of one of the first families and received a farm that he worked diligently even when most farmers gave up, neglected the vineyards, opened shops.
From the age of thirteen, Avinoam would go out to the vineyards with him after school. He was a dedicated worker, learned all there was to know about the day to day treatment of vines, was the first to notice plant growth and signs of disease and harmful insects, but most of all he loved the deforestation of the natural groves his father initiated every once and a while in order to expand the farm. A forest, that’s what Arieh Glickson called the thick tangle of undergrowth and intertwined trees. As a student in the Arbeite Schule, he had accumulated much experience in uprooting rocks and trees and he would spur the Arab workers on to do the work as quickly as possible because it was being done without permission and he had to present the authorities with an accomplished fact: another plot of land he was already working.
Avinoam never left the site while the deforestation was going on. I didn’t go to school on those days, he once told Dinna, I hardly ever went home, we’d work in the evenings too, and before dawn, and when the sun came up, you suddenly saw that there were no more bushes or oaks or terebinths or pines or rocks on this part of the mountain, just turned earth with a lot of small stones soon to be covered with long rows of young vines, that’s how he described it in that rare moment of storytelling, and added with a kind of chuckle, something created from nothing, and Dinna had known that he meant the eloquent words coming out of his mouth. That was the only way her father could say that more than anything, he loved the brief time in which the vegetation vanished and the face of the hill no one had ever seen before was revealed.
But when she had asked him then why he didn’t stay in Zichron, he’d replied that even during those days before they planted a new vineyard, he was already thinking about life outside the village. A vineyard is a vineyard, Avinoam had said, you go out, you work, you come back. Come back home, he said, inhaling deeply as if he were smelling one of the smells of the house he never wanted to go back to, and Dinna had said to herself then, that’s how it is: it doesn’t matter if it’s in Haifa in the house where he chose to live or in Zichron, when he would come back to his father’s house in the evening.
Avinoam didn’t make friends with the young people in the village, wasn’t a member of any society or group, he didn’t even join Nili, like Zvi, his younger brother, but he worked for them occasionally because spying for the English appealed to him very much. He waited for their victory, for the Turks to be gone, when everything would be reversed and the entire country open to change, and he would be a free man, no longer a deserter hiding from the Turks in the village and no one would be his master anymore, not his father, not the Baron’s functionaries, no one would demand from him an accounting of his plans. Finally he would be his own man like his only friend Yosef Antebbi.
He and Yosef met during World War I in the recruiting office in Jerusalem. Avinoam, who’d been caught as a deserter from the Turkish army, had been brought there at the same time that Yosef Antebbi, a young lawyer in the Turkish administration, came in. Neither of them had ever talked about what happened then, who spoke to whom, if their glances met momentarily, if Avinoam told him his name, or if it was Yosef who asked him before they led the prisoners to the interrogation room, but he, Yosef, didn’t meet with the man who was waiting for him, and went to see the recruiting officer instead.
And you became friends right away? Dinna had asked Yosef one afternoon not long after she married his son Rafael. Yosef had looked at her fondly and with some puzzlement: Avinoam didn’t tell you about it? he asked and said, your father didn’t want to be in Zichron and I didn’t want to be in Jerusalem, and then, smiling thinly, as if making light of the matter, he described to Dinna how the screams of the deserters – who had been shackled by their feet to wooden beams and were being whipped with leather straps called falkot– reached the office of the recruiting officer and shortly after, the sound of music rose to cover the cries. They played marches, he said, Turkish marches, but he didn’t tell her how he convinced the officer that Avinoam Glickson’s name had been mistakenly added to the list of deserters, and how he took Avinoam out of the room where the men were being beaten to his family’s home, not far from the recruiting office.
So astonished we were, her mother-in-law, Rachel Antebbi, remarked. All of a sudden an Ashkenazi in farmer’s clothes and he could hardly walk came into our liwan. We were all ready to help a Jewish deserter, Rachel said, but we were so surprised that Yosef brought Avinoam into our home. We never knew anyone like him before. We didn’t have dealings with them. They were very strange for us, those people who came here from Eastern Europe to work on the land. They were nothing like the Ashkenazi Jews we knew from the Old City. They’re Jews, those people? Grandpa used to say, she added with a smile, not stating explicitly that the family did not approve of the relationship that developed between Yosef and Avinoam.
The Glicksons, on the other hand, openly objected to that friendship, especially Arieh Glickson, who was always suspicious of people like the Antebbis, to him they seemed like the Baron’s Sephardic lackeys: obsequious servants engaged in a constant battle against the farmers. He didn’t even explain how he got you released, he said to Avinoam, what he did for the man in charge of recruiting, what he promised him, if he gave him money, then we’ll pay it back. But Arieh Glickson didn’t inquire any further about the bribe even though Yosef Antebbi occasionally came to Zichron Yaacov on his way north, he and Avinoam would see each other at every opportunity.
Until one day a carriage stopped in front of the house and Yosef stepped out accompanied by a young Arab. Where did he get money for a hantur? Arieh Glickson asked. Avinoam explained that the carriage belonged to the el-Halil family, Muslim landowners from Haifa whose oldest son, Taher, was Yosef’s friend. Effendis, Arieh Glickson said disdainfully, his eyes fixed on the two men who walked into his yard each wearing a suit and a fez, gentlemen who never set foot in villages, who don’t know the land or the fellahin who farm it for them, and if they do come to a village once, then it’s like this, in a hantur.
They come, they go, Arieh Glickson said, it’s not them the Turks will find when they come to the village. You’re the one they’ll arrest, and Zvi and probably me too, and when Avinoam turned to go into the yard, Arieh Glickson said, they’re not coming in here. They’ll just have something to drink and we’ll go, Avinoam said. His father left the house before the two men came in and didn’t return until dark, when Avinoam and Yosef and Taher el-Halil had already left for a meeting at Aaronson’s experimental station in Atlit. At the time, Nili was urgently looking for a liaison who could cross the desert to British Intelligence in Port Said, and el-Halil had suggested an Arab from the Beersheba area who knew the region well.
After that, Avinoam and Yosef rarely met at the Glickson home. Avinoam would slip into Haifa in wagons, more than once going part of the way on foot, not a simple matter in those days when the roads were dangerous and there were hardly any places to spend the night, and the Turkish army was searching for deserters. As the war drew closer to its end, they met with el-Halil more often, coming up with various ideas to be put into operation after the English reached Haifa, where the Russian Jews had already established some light industry and had also bought land. Yosef Antebbi, whose family had always acquired land, saw himself continuing the tradition, but far from the large family, while Avinoam, who didn’t want to cut himself off from the land, especially not the land of the Carmel, had in mind industries related to it, like the extraction of building materials and lime. He also dreamed about a house he would build on the top of the mountain, like the German Templars, and from it he would see the sea, hardly visible from the family home in Zichron Yaacov, and the wind would blow in directly from the sea, nothing would block it.
But over the last few years, apartment buildings had begun to surround the house Avinoam built on Hanadiv Street on the Carmel. The sea was no longer visible and the wind passed only through the tall treetops, never even reaching the large room where his wife Raya, Shaul and Dinna’s mother, sat at the dining table across from the huge ficus tree whose thick and twisted trunk hid the wide street.
She sat in her regular place at the corner of the table. She wouldn’t go to sleep at noon like Avinoam. Sleeping in a darkened room and waking up in the daylight oppressed her and sometimes confused her, a feeling of having lost her way, that’s what she would say. She used to spend that time sitting at the corner of the dining table, facing the doors that were open to the garden, drinking one cup of tea after another.
I’ve already forgotten when you were here the last time, she said, a month at least, how time flies, and it occurred to Dinna that here, in this place, time didn’t seem to move at all, every day like the one before it, since Dad stopped going to the office and stayed home, and suddenly, she had nothing to say, even the comments she’d prepared in advance had vanished. Her mother repeated the questions she’d asked on the phone and Dinna was replying automatically when she suddenly heard her say, Shaul was here yesterday. He talked to your father outside. He didn’t even come in to say hello. Dinna lit a cigarette. Dad’s still outside? she asked. Where do you want him to be? her mother replied. He’ll be in soon, she added, he wouldn’t miss the beginning of the Arab movie.
More tea? she asked, pushing the jars of jam that were always on the table closer to Dinna. They always took spoonfuls of it with their tea, the way they used to in the Glickson home in the village. It’s hot, Dinna said after a while. Yes, her mother said and added that maybe Shaul was right and they really should get rid of the ficus so there would be light and air, and in its place, plant a few of the palm trees they bring in so cheap from al-Arish these days, really tall trees, they’re beautiful, palm trees, she said, so beautiful the way they are in the wind. Dinna, who more than once had heard about this plan and about the spirited movement of palm trees in the wind, knew that the ficus would stay where it was because, more than anything, her mother loved shade.
The pine trees have grown so much, Dinna said. Sad trees, her mother said without moving her glance to the trees in the window behind her. Sad? Dinna asked. Zvi thought so too, said her mother, they’re grayer every year, he used to say. He always talked about the trees he’d plant in the garden in their place, always had plans about the house in Zichron too. But he didn’t cut them down, Dinna said, and he didn’t plant other trees. No, her mother said, what for?
Sleep, if only they’d let me sleep, Dinna said to herself, staring blankly at the dark table top, hearing the rustle of the wind in the tops of the pines, the wind that blew from the sea during the hottest part of the day, and she was oppressed by that old feeling of being adrift out there, in the hills, when the wind blew through the heavy air, that old feeling came back to her, a vague feeling that there was actually emptiness, more and more hot dry hills that were not a place, only empty space.
Nothing but low undergrowth, more gray than green, and in the distance, more hills in the hot haze, hills like giant reservoirs of heat, and above them, an enormous front of light that was the sky, and no horizon line at all between the sky and the sea, you could only tell by the light reflected slightly differently that there was water there, and suddenly there was nowhere to go in that big open place that was actually no place at all, only space, so much space full of hot light and hot dust, the only creatures able to pass through it were grasshoppers and scorpions and ladybugs and an Arab shepherd who looked like an ancient Hebrew shepherd in the Bible, and there was a wind blowing, but part of all that lowness and dryness didn’t move at all: hot stones, bushes, thorns.
A feeling that Zvi must have had in Zichron too, in the yard that faced the hills, the thought passed through Dinna’s mind as she leaned her elbows on the table and rested her head between them. There were times when he didn’t know what to do with himself in the family home, where he didn’t like to be and where he lived with his mother until the day he died. Fatmi is lighting a fire in the taboon and suddenly you were closed in there with that smoke in the yard, he once said.
A wonderful smell, Avinoam had said then, and Zvi had to admit that it was true, he too liked the smell of the mastic branches burning in the earth and the dung, but he said, you sit there smelling the taboon, already smiling cheerfully at his brother. Those fluctuations of Zvi’s used to bother Avinoam, seemed to disrupt the order of things, but Dinna looked forward to them, and sensing the melancholy that lay below Zvi’s cheerfulness, she expected it to float and rise, expected Zvi to give in to it. There was something unstable about him, about Zvi, but Dinna felt comfortable with him. Even when she was a child, it never bothered her that now he was happy and now he was sad. It seemed right to her, if he was happy, he was happy, and if he was sad, he was sad.
But when Fatmi and Abu Maher left, Zvi would walk around the rectangular yard on the slope of the hill, back and forth past the shacks, most of them empty, because they’d closed up the pen a short time later, then the cow barn and the chicken coop, and he’d stop in front of the closed storeroom where Fatmi and Abu Maher had lived, quite a large storeroom next to the pen, adjacent to the small yard where they slept in summer and where they built the taboon whose smell permeated the farm when Fatmi baked pita breads and cooked stuffed vegetables, fish with rice, and in the winter hubeza in olive oil, hubeza in tomato juice, akub, that tasted like artichoke but better, alit, loof, khimar.
And once Rivka, Avinoam and Zvi’s older sister who already then was looking after the house and their old mother, saw him wandering around the empty yard and went over to him and said, It’s good that they’re gone. Zvi was silent, which angered her even more, and she said, Why are you standing in front of their yard as if it were a doghouse without a dog in it? Bring them back if you want. But they both knew that there were no more Arab harathim living in Jews’ yards and Fatmi and Abu Maher were far away already, in Ein Ghazal. You, Rivka said, the only thing you have any feelings for is what used to be. And after a pause, she said, But why should you care, you only come here to sleep, and Zvi laughed and said, What’s with you today?
Voices speaking Arabic came from the TV. The room was oppressively hot. An occasional breeze passed through the top of the ficus tree, bringing with it the bitter, repellent smell of its fruit that had turned soft over the last few years, bursting as it fell and turning into a brown mush that never dried and covered the front garden and the sidewalk and the stone path leading to the house, more fruit fell every day, week after week, months actually, every year creating a thick carpet under the canopy of the giant ficus, new rot over old, the bad smell growing stronger on humid days.
Her mother’sface was no longer turned toward the garden but toward the far end of the room where Avinoam was sitting in front of the TV. She watched the Egyptian and Jordanian channels too, Dinna realized, but she didn’t move, didn’t go near it. Sitting at the table: small, round, a pale face that with time had grown to look more and more like the face of a nun.
Can I turn on the air conditioner?, she asked then. Like with everything else, ask your father, her mother replied, and Dinna walked over to the corner of the room. The TV stood in the opening of the large fireplace they’d once built at her mother’s request. Even before the broadcasts from Jerusalem had begun, Avinoam had put up a special antenna to pick up Lebanon and Jordan and especially Egypt. He sat on the couch, his iron hair wet from the shower, giving off a light smell, the non-perfumed smell of laundry soap. There is still some wind, he said and turned up the volume. On the TV screen were a man and a woman in a carriage at night, the woman staring wide-eyed at the man, the Arab movie had already begun.
The man on the screen leaned over to the woman beside him in the carriage and began to sing. The carriage rolled slowly down a dark street among tall eucalyptus trees that swayed in the breeze, and disappeared into the deep darkness of the street, but the singer’s trilling voice remained, along with the swaying eucalyptus trees, their long leaves black against the white light. Avinoam’s eyes did not move, even when the singer’s voice weakened and faded and the screen darkened.
He’s here and he’s not, Dinna said to herself. He listens to the voices in the movie and at the same time, he hears something that has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, something like humming that he hears only in front of the TV. He’s completely immersed in what happens on the screen, but at the same time, he isn’t here, he’s back in what happened a few years ago when he had to liquidate his businesses, sell what was left of his property, and become a sit-at-home. How can he go on this way day after day, here at home when he has nowhere to go anymore? He can, that’s the point: he can. He’s pressing a button to turn up the volume again, and on his face is the melancholy that attacks at a late age those people who have failed to carry out their great plans.
I have to get going, Dinna said, and her mother, still watching the distant screen, said, already? I didn’t know you like those movies, Dinna said. Her mother turned to her. It’s the songs, she said, your father listens to them over and over again. Sometimes, when I go over to the television set so he can hear me, he answers me in Arabic.
I’m going, Dinna said.
No reason to rush over to Shaul’s house. Sonia probably went out. This is the time she starts her nightly outings.
This is the time, her mother repeated. Clothes fit better at night, she once told me. You should see her clothes. And when she started describing how shoddy and dirty they were, Dinna interrupted her, don’t talk about Sonia like that, and then her mother told her how Amos, Shaul and Sonia’s son, recently discharged from the paratroopers and about to go to the States, used to come to their house so he wouldn’t have to see his mother going out into the street like that. And once he came in the middle of the Friday Arab movie, exactly when that actor was singing the song, and he asked loudly, what’s the name of the singer who sings ‘Gabar’? Abd el-Halim, Avinoam had said.
He sings well, her mother said, especially that song, ‘Gabar’, and told Dinna that Amos had asked then what he was singing about and Avinoam said, love, and Amos looked into his eyes the way that singer, Abd el-Halim, looked into the eyes of his beloved, and started to sing along with him, mimicking his voice and the words. And Avinoam said, stop, let me watch, but with a smile, and Amos laughed the way he used to, with flashing eyes, and asked what he was singing, and Avinoam told him, ‘I’ve sat and talked to you so much and still I don’t know you’, and her mother stopped. Why did you tell me that? Dinna asked. Why did I?, her mother said. I really don’t know.
But what could I tell her? That Amos asked what’s gabar, and Avinoam said, strong, stronger than me, and Amos said, say another line, and he spoke another line, the singer sang a line and he spoke it, until Amos said, sing, and Avinoam spoke the words again and banged his fist on the table.
Then came the parts about his sweetheart who goes from bad to worse, and Amos slid to the floor and stayed there with his legs spread, and he had those eyes again, the eyes he’s had since the Six Day War, when he doesn’t even seem to be watching television. But when the singer, Abd el-Halim, sang the song again, he pulled himself together and said, ‘Gabar,’ and Avinoam said ‘stronger than me, I can’t go on without you,’ and Amos said, sing, Grandpa, and Avinoam said the next line and banged his fist on the table.
Avinoam had to sing then, he had to sing and not just speak the words and bang his fist. We had to hear his hoarse voice sing: Amos on the floor, I in my place, watching and unwatched, he’d completely forgotten I was there at the table, but I heard and saw him, sitting the way he sits, watching TV the way he watches, day after day, with all the time in the world. I saw and heard Avinoam say, ‘I’ve decided to be unfaithful to you but not to our love. Our love will remain as long as we live.’ Abd el-Halim must have had more beautiful words, but that’s what Avinoam said, those were his words: I’ve decided to be unfaithful to you but not to our love.
Avinoam watches those movies over and over again, he listens to the Arabic and to the songs in a way he doesn’t listen to anything else in the world. Arabic is a language he really loves, after all, that’s what they spoke in Zichron, in the yard. Who can I tell if not Dinna how back then, in the yard, all of us were suddenly there, Avinoam and I, she and her son, and Shaul. Does Shaul remember? If I ask him, he’ll say, what are you talking about? But Dinna would know what I’m talking about. She’s Avinoam’s daughter. She’s the girl he loves. She’d understand right away what happened then, almost fifty years ago, so many things seem never to have happened, but not this, and it doesn’t seem so long ago.
Rosh Hashana eve. Like every year, we went to Zichron for the holiday and the heat was so oppressive, the first khamsin of autumn. An eastern wind was blowing constantly, it doesn’t blow so often now because of the Keren Kayemet forests, that’s what they say, and it’s a good thing too, I still haven’t gotten used to that wind, even today it drives me crazy. Back then I would still say to myself, Rosh Hashana and I’m in Eretz Israel, as if it were all a dream I’d soon wake up from at home, in Krakow, and the pomegranates in the bowl would again be pictures in the book I had when I was a child. In those days in Krakow, I didn’t believe there really was fruit like that or a place in the world where you could go out to the yard and just reach up and pick a pomegranate, and another pomegranate, and so many would still be left on the tree.
There was a large bowl of pomegranates on the table then, and a candelabrum with candles in it and next to it some squills, long stems full of small white flowers that glow like tiny candles, the flowers that suddenly appear in that season when everything is still dry. Fatmi had brought them from the hills behind the yard, that’s where the wind was coming from too, whistling its eastern whistles, whistling and scratching at the closed shutters. And it was so hot that I took off the white dress I’d made myself for the holiday and put on the blue one, the lighter one. And even though Fatmi kept pouring pails of water on the floor so it wouldn’t be so dry, it was still stifling in the rooms and the dust blew in through the shutters. Fatmi was still cutting the squill stems that were too long for the vase when I suddenly heard Shaul crying outside.
I went out to the yard. They were at the far end next to Fatmi and Abu Maher’s storeroom. Shaul was standing there crying next to a boy who was sitting on the ground, and Avinoam was standing not far from them. Behind the low wall that separated the large yard from their small one stood the boy’s mother, Shahira was her name. I haven’t seen her since then, but every once in a while, I’d picture her in my mind standing behind the low wall in their yard, and say to myself, yes, she’s around somewhere, yes. That thought would cross my mind even after Fatmi and Abu Maher had gone and we didn’t hear from them anymore, even after the War of Independence, when there were almost no Arab villages left in the area.
But I never asked about her, not about her or the boy. I was afraid to see their faces when I asked, the face of Avinoam’s mother, Esther, who loved them, the face of Rivka, who wished them ill, even Zvi’s face. I have no proof that she’s still around. Just that image of her standing in the yard that has stayed with me and the feeling that even now, Avinoam knows where she is. He never mentioned her or Fatmi and Abu Maher, never said what happened to them. They didn’t talk about them, not Avinoam and not Rivka. As if the earth had swallowed them up.
Maybe she, Shahira, is already in the earth too. Maybe they’d already put her in the earth she knew so well in every season of the year. Not in the earth of Zichron Yaacov where she was born, just like Avinoam and Zvi and Rivka, and not in the village where she lived later, but still in the earth of the Carmel where the bones of her forefathers and their forefathers and the bones of the oxen and the donkeys were buried. Nice song lyrics – “It bloomed on the hillside” – that’s what the Carmel was for me, not this earth that has everything in it. And Avinoam smells it, picks up a handful and smells it, and sometimes puts a little in his pocket, soil that she might already be lying in, that old fellaha who had been so beautiful. They’ll cover Avinoam with that soil too, and me as well. More frightening than death is the thought of lying there next to Avinoam, covered with hard clods of dry earth and not by the soil I remember from our cemetery in Krakow, wet and dark and full of rotted leaves. How much I want to lie there next to my grandmother, under the enormous trees and not in the puny shade of the cypress trees on the hill where the Zichron cemetery is, beside Arieh and Esther Glickson and Zvi, and above us, those tropical things, the large bougainvilleas that blossom as long as it’s hot, like the mosquitoes and the ants that stay alive as long as the winter is warm, they have no seasons.
No seasons. A land without seasons. And I’m someone who immigrated to this country, has spent most of her life here, but I’ll always be someone who’s been moved here, taken and put here. Here I am, sitting at the table that my parents brought when we came to live here, caught in the fever of the national home that was being built. I’m sitting at the table they left me, along with the sideboard, when they went back. I was the only one who stayed, and it’s very possible that I would have returned with them if I hadn’t already been Avinoam’s wife and Shaul’s mother. I always say that even if I hadn’t been married and the mother of a small child, I would definitely have stayed here, but that isn’t definite at all.
It’s very possible that I would have returned to Krakow with them and gone to the university like my parents wanted —in my heart, I wanted it too —and I would have married someone I knew. To this day, I don’t really know Avinoam. Sometimes I know what he’s thinking but never what he wants, and he doesn’t want me to know, he just wants me to leave him alone, and now it’s getting worse, much worse. Lately, he’s been making me jam. Soon he’ll be making me grape jam from his vines. Meanwhile, he goes to the souk especially to buy apricots, plums. Stands for hours in the kitchen with the old pot I gave him, fills up jars, brings one to the table. To have with your tea, he says.
He wouldn’t have been the least bit sorry if I’d gotten up and gone to Krakow with Shaul and never came back. There I would have told Shaul about his father, who was far away, and how one day, we’d visit him in the promised land. I would have kept him in my heart even if I had another husband. I could have had maybe twenty years there until I took the short train ride with my whole family, we’d passed by that village, Oświęcim–Auschwitz–more than once.
But I’m here. Sitting at the art deco table my parents left, my legs between the heavy black panels, I sit here for hours, watch the lovers from Cairo or Beirut, hear the Arab songs, I’m in the east, like the poet wrote, but my heart is no longer at the ends of the west. I don’t think anymore about what was there, but my heart cares nothing about what’s here and the passing years have changed nothing: I’m still the one who won’t go out in the sun, won’t wander around the Carmel, won’t go to the beach, and I didn’t like the food Fatmi cooked for them, sharp and spicy and Avinoam’s favorite. I’ve remained the one who wasn’t comfortable in Zichron. The jackals howl there even before sunset, suddenly nighttime wailing in the light of day, and I used to think: why are they wailing like that? Sometimes the howling was so close, they seemed to be in the yard, on the mat with the Arabs.
Fatmi and Abu Maher. I couldn’t get used to the fact that they were so close. Once, I was walking in the yard and heard noise from the grain storeroom. I looked inside, someone moved past in the darkness, and a terrible scream burst from my mouth. The man hurried out without looking at me. It was only Abu Maher. I didn’t tell anyone about it so they wouldn’t know about my shame. Back then I was still of the opinion that there were people who were of this country and people who came to it. There were the Arabs like the ones in the yard, whose lives went on as they always had, and there was me, the wife Avinoam had brought, only recently arrived, because that’s how Fatmi and Abu Maher saw me, someone who still had to change. They, even with all the Yiddish they’d learned to speak, they wouldn’t change. They were just waiting to see how I’d manage, and I’ll learn how to manage here in this country, I thought then, that’s what will happen with time. After all, Avinoam’s father came from there too, once he was the one who’d only just come, that’s what I used to tell myself.
Sometimes, when no one’s home, I stand here, my back to the window with its dusty mosquito net, my face to the gecko on the wall. Lizard is what I called it until they told me it was a gecko. They know all those names, Avinoam and Dinna, and when I repeat what they say, it doesn’t sound right to them, I can see on their faces that I’d be better off saying lizard. Oh well. The gecko likes a shaded wall, and I’m standing there reciting to myself lines by Adam Mickiewicz, lines by Yuliush Slovatski. More Mickiewicz: longing for the homeland, the grand, sad words, his exile. Nothing in the Hebrew I labored so hard to learn can say it that way, with an overflowing heart, remembering the names and the places I haven’t seen since I came to Eretz Israel and will never go to see again.
But then, in Zichron, I was still excited to be here at Rosh Hashana with the season’s first pomegranates from the garden and the white flowers from the hills, the squills whose stems Fatmi cut with a sharp knife, standing there at the table, tall, like her daughter, as spare as a man, her efficient hands large and strong. She was always there, wherever I went. She was there doing what needed to be done, and I had the feeling that her eyes changed when they were on me, as if a liquid had been dripped into them, like the drops that enlarge the irises, when she spoke to me in those Yiddish words of hers. But then, when Shaul cried, Fatmi didn’t say anything, she just looked at me.
Did she know at all what was going on outside? Did she see her daughter standing in the small yard? I never went there. Don’t invade their territory, I used to tell myself, they have their life there—an attitude that Avinoam and Zvi thought was ridiculous, and probably Fatmi and Abu Maher and their children did too, they were always going in and out of each other’s houses —but that day, outside, it wasn’t like that. Avinoam was standing in the farmyard next to Shaul and that boy, and Shahira was standing on the other side of the low wall, in their yard. And it didn’t look like Avinoam was thinking about going over there, and more than anything, it didn’t look like she would come into the large yard where her son was still sitting, where he’d been playing with stones until Shaul came over to bother him. Suddenly, there seemed to be borders.
She came with the boy on Rosh Hashana. She took the trouble to make the long trip on the holiday, of all times, when we come from Haifa and Fatmi is so busy. Then it was a long way from Zichron to their village, which was destroyed later in the War of Independence. Many of them returned after the war, sneaked back into the country. Rivka said that they congregated in the Arab village that was left in the area, the one on the old Haifa-Tel Aviv road, and not long after, they came to work in Zichron again. More than once, I wanted to ask Rivka if they worked in the family vineyards. Finally, when I did ask, the vineyards were gone and Rivka began her usual lament about Avinoam, who’d sold the vineyards that had belonged to her too to cover debts that were his alone. But he didn’t sell the old house and she had to live in it because Avinoam wouldn’t even listen to offers to buy it.
When he dies, they’ll sell the house in Zichron to be destroyed, and that isn’t far off. Even though Avinoam’s healthy and strong as an ox, it isn’t far off. He sits here in front of the Arab movies on TV like Esther, his mother, used to sit through her last days in front of her father’s picture. When she stopped going out of the house, they fixed up the room facing the street for her so she could see at least the street, but she used to sit and look at the picture of her father. And once, when I sat down next to her, she put a finger to her mouth so I wouldn’t disturb them, so I would be quiet.
Quiet. Slow ascent unto death. And they’ll sell this house too when Avinoam dies, and that plot he bought for Amos in the occupied territories. Every once in a while he goes to see what’s happening there, hires a taxi for the whole day without a thought to what it costs. I have no idea what he does there all day. Maybe he wanders around the hills that look like they used to, talks to the Arabs, asks about land for sale, and of course, Amos will never live in that place, the United States. There’s not even any way of knowing when Amos will come back, he went to be far from his mother, but one day he’ll come back: Sonia doesn’t let anyone get far away from her, not even Dinna.
How can Dinna stand her now? I thought I’d talk to their cleaning lady, to tell her never to leave dirty clothes around because that’s what Sonia wears, always the dirty clothes. To do the laundry every day. What does she have to do in a house no one ever comes into anyway? Shaul is out all day, Sonia is always in the bedroom. But Shaul made me swear not to interfere. The help has been threatening to leave as it is, and I definitely understand her: just spending a few hours with Sonia every day. I don’t know why Shaul doesn’t put her in a home, or how he can endure the shame when the policemen bring her home from a public park or the street.
She brought a curse down on all of us, Sonia did, she and her beauty and the songs she used to play on the piano and the Polish she lapses into at every opportunity, with me too, and I always answer in Hebrew. When I hear her speaking Polish with Eddie, Antebbi’s driver, my native language suddenly seems full of lip-smacking and saliva, a language as obscene as everyone says it is. I don’t understand why Dinna goes to see that woman, what does she, my daughter, have in common with her, why are they so close? Every time she’s in Haifa, she goes to see her. I live across the street and haven’t been to their house in years. If Sonia wants to see me, let her take a bath, put on clean clothes, pull back her whitening hair that’s spread out over her shoulders like a witch’s hair, and let her come here. But Sonia, she just wants to roam the streets, only at night, that’s her time to sit in the park. If it were up to her, she’d never go back to the apartment at all. What for? The apartment was never a home for her. Why does she need a home?
And what is a home? What is a home really, except a place with old medications you have to throw out but don’t throw out, clothes you keep from season to season and never wear, all sorts of dishes sitting for years in the closet in a particular order that isn’t necessarily good or convenient, empty jars long ago put on a shelf too high to reach, more and more things that have accumulated and nobody wonders why, this table my parents left and no one likes but me, and I don’t especially like it either, but I have no desire to look for another one to replace it, I have no patience for this life anymore.
It’s especially like that in the house in Zichron, all the rooms there are full of things that no longer belong to anyone, only to the house. Zvi used to wander through the rooms there, unable to find a place for himself. He loved to visit the Sephardic family that had lived in the village from the days of the Baron. Those ‘Frenks’ put me in a good mood, he once told me when we went to see them. I liked to go with him to the big house they grew up in when their father served as Baron Rothschild’s commissioner in Zichron. When the Baron’s administration was disbanded, the Sephardic family went to live in a small wing of the house, a few rooms, and that’s where they received us. The dining room was also the living room, furnished with a couch and some armchairs upholstered in damask and a large sideboard completely engraved with mother of pearl.
They knew how to live there. They looked good amidst the things they had left. There was a feeling of home in that place. I don’t know how they did it. As if they could put the harsh things aside and live in peace with the surroundings even though no one in Zichron could stand them. Those farmers never forget anything. It didn’t matter how many years had passed since the Baron’s officials left the village, they still called them the Baron’s Frenks.
Maybe Avinoam was like them and Yosef Antebbi felt it. I used to think about that during the years they lived in Haifa and Yosef and Avinoam were still great friends. Even then, when we all used to get together often, I didn’t feel that they were really close except for one time when I went with Yosef to the first lime kiln they’d built far away on the Carmel. I asked him to take me with him to visit Avinoam and he tried to talk me out of it. He tried very hard. He told me how difficult the trip was to that isolated place, suggested that I send food with him, a few changes of underwear. It would be a pity, Raya, a pity for you to come, and what he meant was, don’t do it, but I pleaded so much that he finally gave in.
We left early in the morning. It was far away on the Carmel. Arabs with donkeys were waiting for us where the road ended. One pulled Yosef’s donkey by a rope, the other mine. It was a long way. Yosef rode in front of me, his legs dangling on the path, his black shoes already white with dust. My donkey’s neck was covered with flies that did not move. It took me a while to realize that there was a long gash on the donkey’s neck, an open cut, and the flies were stuck to it.
Later came the smell of fire, the smell of burning lime, and I saw Avinoam and the workers, all covered in white dust, even their hair. Avinoam had come with them a few days earlier and hadn’t left the place. He’d chosen the spot where the pit would be dug, made sure the Jewish workers took part in the digging. Yosef asked why they were picking thorns like Arab workers, that was no work for them. Avinoam explained that they had to do everything, learn everything, keep the lime burning for two days straight, that’s how a lime kiln is made. Only when he moved further away with Yosef and they began talking together, only then did I admit to myself that he hadn’t said a word to me except hello and don’t come any closer because of the dirt. Nothing, not even just: I’m so glad you came. Avinoam had no words like those.
My donkey started to bray. It was tied to a bush and could easily have pulled it up and walked away, but it stood where it was and brayed heartbreakingly. I walked over to it. To be next to a living creature. It was so desolate all around, nothing but rocks and stones and thorns that the workers were cutting and throwing into the pit to feed the fire, and further away, Yosef and Avinoam, who were speaking in low voices, as if sharing secrets. They were a strange pair. Avinoam was dressed just like the Jewish workers he’d brought with him. He looked like a young man compared to Yosef, who was wearing a dark suit even though it was summer: a Levantine gentleman listening to every word coming out of the mouth of the young man, his partner, who was completely covered in lime dust.
Then they walked back to me. Yosef apologized for letting me wait on the side. I asked Avinoam where he slept. Here, he said and pointed to the ground. I asked when he was coming home. He said in another few days, after they loaded the lime. Then he walked away from me even before we got on our donkeys. I told Yosef that this was what Avinoam really loved, places like this, work like this, and that I was in the way. Yosef said he’d been waiting for us. For you, not me, I said. Don’t say that, he said, and smiled at me. He didn’t understand what I was doing there, I said, he didn’t want me to come. Yosef explained that it hadn’t entered Avinoam’s mind that I would come, and I thought he was right, it just never entered his mind. Yosef said that those were great days, soon they’d finish building a lime kiln in partnership with Taher el-Halil, and he told me that el-Halil was going to throw a big party in honor of their partnership. Go with Rachel and have a couple of pretty dresses made, he said amiably.
Yosef spoke very nicely to me. I had the feeling that the less reassuring his thoughts were, the nicer his words, and I wondered what lay behind his bright expression, what he thought of me, the wife Avinoam ignored. Better not speculate about what he was thinking, not him or Rachel, not even Rafael, who is always pleasant to be around, to listen to his stories, to laugh with him. How cheerful he was then, before Dinna married him, God knows why she went and did that. She wouldn’t have married him if Zvi hadn’t died. She came to Rafael from his terrible death. Oh well.
So why shouldn’t I tell her? She’s not a child anymore, Dinna, even though she’s still so slender and has that childish laugh. Soon she won’t have that woman-girl look anymore, but she doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. She never wanted to talk to me either. She never told me anything, but I won’t forget how she came here one day a few years ago, the phone rang a while later and she picked up the receiver, spoke English, talked for a long time and didn’t care that I could hear. Then she told me she was going. You just got here, I said, and she told me she had a work meeting. Now? I asked, and Dinna didn’t say a word. Be careful, I said then, and she looked at me. She had a wild look in her eyes. What do you know, what did you ever have in your life? she said to me in a voice that erupted the way tears would erupt from her when she was a child: deep, long, inconsolable sobs. She never let me go near her when she cried.
Once, years ago, she came to visit with the children. They were still small, Netanel was almost a baby. The house was so quiet after they left, topsy-turvy and quiet, and suddenly Avinoam said, she looks good. I told him that women look good after giving birth. She looks ready, he said then. Ready? I said. Avinoam didn’t answer, so I asked, ready for what? She’s had her children already, he said, and his tone was matter-of-fact, as if he were talking about an animal he knew well, a mare he raised, and not about his daughter, the daughter I gave him. Avinoam, he didn’t want children from me. No, not from me, but he had them anyway.
Soon it’ll be fifty years since that Rosh Hashana eve in Zichron when Shaul cried and I went out of the house and saw Avinoam in the yard too. And I ran down the slope, and when I reached them, I saw that Shaul was bent oddly over the boy who was sitting on the ground, a boy of about eight who was twisting Shaul’s hand, and Avinoam was standing there watching. Why are you standing there like that? I wanted to say, but then I heard her.
Ta’al hon, come here, her voice came from Fatmi and Abu Maher’s small yard. She was standing across from us. She didn’t come out of their yard. There was a low wall between us and her that hid her legs, and she was standing close to it, tall among the squat buildings, her loose dress stretched tightly across her thighs, a low khamsin sky above her. And she didn’t say a word, and neither did Avinoam. Had they spoken earlier, before I came, or weren’t they able to speak then, only look at the child sitting on the ground and at Shaul bent crookedly over him?
The jackals had already started to howl, or maybe it wasn’t jackals, just the wind coming from the east, its melancholy voice passing through the storerooms, beating again and again against Shahira’s back as she stood in the small yard, where they stayed during the summer, all of them outside, sleeping with the animals and the dung, like they had probably slept that Rosh Hashana night and all the other nights when she was still a young girl, lying there, only a thin mat between her and the hard ground, and Avinoam lying on his bed up in the house.
Ta’al hon, she called again to the boy who was still twisting Shaul’s hand. Tell him to stop, I said. But Avinoam didn’t say a word, just stood and watched them, didn’t take his eyes off them. His son, not yet three years old, was squirming and crying and he just watched.
Let him go, I cried, and the boy let go of Shaul’s hand. Suddenly, he was with me, sobbing into my dress. He took one of the boy’s stones, Avinoam said then. Give it to me, I said, because Shaul’s hand was still closed around the stone. He didn’t open it, just wet my dress with his tears. Her son picked up his pebbles one by one, not hastily, and then I sensed her eyes. Our glances met. And as if looking in a mirror, I saw myself reflected in her eyes, a little woman in a blue dress. If I had at least still been wearing the white dress, the new one, as she stood there in front of me: a sturdy body but a narrow face and shining narrow eyes, a beautiful woman with a slightly raised upper lip who looked at me without moving her head in greeting. I was the first to look away, trying again to open Shaul’s hand so he wouldn’t be holding the boy’s stone. Ta’al hon, she said again quietly, the way you talk at home, as if only she and the boy were there, or actually, she and Avinoam and the boy.
But the boy didn’t go to her. He was waiting for his stone, which I finally pried out of Shaul’s hand, a fairly flat stone, I remember the heat that had accumulated in it from his hand, and threw it at him. He looked up at me. He had light eyes, very light in his tanned face. He took the stone, and threw it lightly over our heads. Ta’al hon, ta’al, she called then, moving to the opening in the low wall and standing there solidly on her bare feet, ready to leap out if the boy threw another stone. Who’s that, I asked, even though I knew she was Fatmi and Abu Maher’s daughter. Avinoam said, this is her home, she lived here until she got married.
Copyright © Hadara Lazar 2012. Translation © Hadara Lazar 2012.
Published by arrangement with The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature
Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston
A Local Affair (Mekomiim) was originally published in Hebrew in 2007 by Zmora Bitan, Devir.
Hadara Lazar was born and grew up in Haifa. She holds a BA in history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also studied literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. After spending a number of years abroad, Lazar worked with B’Tselem, a human rights organization, during the first Intifada. Lazar has published five novels and two non-fiction books, the most recent this past summer, Six Singular Characters, the Thirties: Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which was very well-received. Out of Palestine, 1940-1948, which came out in New York at the end of 2011 (Atlas & Co., Publishers), focuses on the last years of the British Mandate as experienced variously by Jews, Arabs and the British. It was the research for that book that led to her novel, A Local Affair. Lazar is also the translator of Sartre's major novel, Nausea, into Hebrew.