What If



What If

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Yoav Avni

Translated from Hebrew by Margalit Rodgers



Historic background: In 1903, an offer was made by British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain to Theodore Herzl's Zionist group – a Jewish state on 5,000 square miles of the Mau Plateau in what is today Kenya and Uganda. The offer was a response to pogroms against the Jews in Russia, and it was hoped the area could be a refuge from persecution for the Jewish people. The idea was brought to the Zionist Congress at its sixth meeting in 1903 in Basel and there, a fierce debate ensued. In the end, the offer was rejected and in 1948 the state of Israel was established in its current position. But, what if….? What if the Zionist Congress had accepted the offer and Israel was born in East Africa I instead of the Middle East?
Trunk or cannon?
There! Something lumbered slowly across the border, and Kfir hesitated –
Elephant or tank?
It was hard to make out. The sun withdrew into dusk over the savannah, and in its peacock-colored light it seemed to Kfir that even the Shields of David changed their color every few minutes. The fluttering blue dimmed into purple, flared into red, and filled with orange.
He strained his eyes and again scanned the horizon that glistened from the long August rains. His best friend wasn’t much help. “Don’t mobilize the whole sector for no good reason,” he said.
Six till ten, the easiest guard shift of all, their last, and Ari insisted on breaking all the rules this time too – he didn’t even bother to look through the binoculars, and from where he sprawled on the concrete floor atop the watchtower, he was sure it was just an elephant. “We’re being discharged tomorrow, remember?”
Kfir remembered (of course he remembered), but his discharge – even the word – was as mysterious and ambiguous as that lone object in the distance.
Discharge from…? Discharge to…? It was hard to make out, and he permitted himself, just this once, to put off what he could till tomorrow. Kfir brought his eyes to the eyepieces and focused. His gaze stretched to the south – over the state flags and the tile roofs of Kfar Darom, over the Maasai refugee camps encircling the Strip settlements, over the security fence.
He scanned the demilitarized zone that stretched from the border with Tanzania up to the distant cluster of acacias. Behind them hid the elephant, or perhaps the tank – the binoculars didn’t reveal anything, and rounded the corners of reality.
“D’you think we should report?” he asked, giving the two-way radio a thorough inspection.
“I think we should find the mosquito repellent,” Ari replied, and took off his combat harness. “I forgot to put some on and it’ll be dark soon. I have no intention of going back home with malaria.” He stood up and grabbed the steps of the ladder. “Back in minute.”
“Wait!” Kfir called out to him, “There’s some here. You don’t want to get caught today of all days.”
Ari sat down on an ammunition box and examined the spray his friend handed to him. “Apple-cinnamon? The smell of this stuff doesn’t come off.”
“That’s all the quartermaster had.”
“And there’s not much left,” he remarked, shaking the container.
Kfir resumed observation. He put his eyes to the binoculars. His arms encircled the base, his fingers slowly turning and adjusting the focusing wheel.
“What about you?” Ari asked.
“I’ve already put some on.”
“I meant in general.” Ari rolled up his sleeves and started spraying his arms. “I, for instance, wouldn’t insist on that position with the binoculars. You do know it’s not coming with us tomorrow, right?”
“Get serious.”
“I am serious, bro. It’s you who’s insisting on looking for tanks on the trees.”
“We’re on guard duty, Ari, so I’m guarding.”
“Guarding what exactly? The border? Haven’t you got it yet that that’s not why we’re here? For the thousandth time – we’re only here because of the settlers.”
“So for the thousandth time plus one – they’re citizens just like me and you,” said Kfir, “and they’re not the problem. No one’s forcing the Mambo-Jumbos to send booby-trapped goats and hide behind children. They’re the ones who set ambushes with poison warheads on their spears and cow shit, not us.”
“And rightly so, if you ask me. They’re nomads and because of us they can’t nomad. If I were occupied here, like them, I’d also try to…” Ari squashed a mosquito that landed on the back of his hand. “See? More suicide attackers. Was it worth it?” he reprimanded the crushed carcass. “Whatever, all this will be resolved soon enough.” He sprayed again and handed the container back to Kfir.
Everything will be resolved soon enough – Kfir tried to imagine how, and couldn’t. He wasn’t sure if Ari was referring to the Disengagement Plan or their approaching trip, and he didn’t like the way his friend talked about the residents of the Strip. There’s nothing to be done – Africa was the cradle of civilization, not Herzl’s registered patent. When the first waves of immigrants arrived, their new neighbors didn’t say hello or offer a cup of cane sugar. It’s easy for a Tel Avivian like Ari to forget there were Maasai before us in his city too, lots of them. But Kfir didn’t say anything. Political arguments played tricks with him, and he usually found himself advocating the opposite opinion of whoever happened to be speaking without actually remembering how he got there – conversations with Ari pushed him to the right, and with his brother, for example, to the left.
But none of that really matters right now, he thought, we’re still soldiers, at least until tomorrow, or until proven otherwise, and until ten tonight the horizon was their responsibility – with its tanks and elephants. Kfir resumed observation. He liked guard duty – the borders of the sector imbued his world with meaning. They marked the line separating what is and what could have been.
The sky changed its skin, and the night was filled with spots of stars. The trees across the border turned black, sprouting confusing shadows. The binoculars didn’t stand a chance. “I’m requesting flares,” he announced.
“Pity, you’ll dazzle the elephant,” Ari said. “Forget it, mark my words.” He drew his IDF-issue machete from his combat harness and started slicing the mango he’d smuggled into the tower. “What time is it, anyway?”
“Two more hours.” Kfir yawned against his will. His eyelids pulled down. He pulled back. He took out a canteen and drank until it was empty.
“So you can take it easy. Nothing’s going to happen here before the evacuation.”
Kfir remained silent. His father would have corrected him and said ‘uprooting’.
“Everyone’s waiting.” Ari leaned back. “Everyone wants to see how we lie in the bed we made here.” He wiped the wide blade on the harness and stood up, “Now take a break and let me take over on the binoculars for a while. You probably can’t see anything now anyway.” He handed him the sliced mango with a smile, “Something orange?”
Kfir didn’t smile. Well, maybe a little. Ari assumed it was hereditary, but Kfir wasn’t really one of the ‘oranges’ – he wasn’t worried that the disengagement would bring down calamity on Israel or prove to the Maasai that it really was possible to throw all of us to the crocodiles, and despite that, every time he looked out from the tops of the watchtowers at the settlements scattered throughout the Strip – intractable rows of straight stone houses in the heart of an exploding chaos of makeshift huts made from straw and cattle dung – a sense of shared destiny ripened in him.
It was indeed an uprooting, a geographic root canal. If the Strip was a mouth, no matter which of Israel’s governments was responsible for opening it to the Devil, then the square white houses were teeth, and no one would hesitate to call the disengagement that. Uprooting. And he too was about to be uprooted – his guard duty would come to an end, then he’d shower, floss, go to his frugal room and have a quick read before sleep crept into his bed and placed a pillow over the face of the departing day. His
consciousness would fumble its way through the dark tunnel stretching between the last minutes of every day, and what then?
Kfir was apprehensive about the blind date with civilian life. He didn’t know if it was really waiting for him, as it was for Ari, or whether it would be there simply because he happened to be the right age. And tonight, now that all the days of his army service had finished counting off before him, he felt that even the settlers still had more time, whereas tomorrow he would become the spearhead of the whole disengagement. His base was his castle, his guard shifts guarded him in return.
“Remember why elephants have tails?” Ari suddenly asked, and resumed sprawling on the floor of the tower.
Kfir hurried to the abandoned binoculars and switched over to night vision. In the starlight the distant acacias resembled phosphorous thumbtacks and looked as though they fixed the soil of the savannah in its place. Thus too the baby elephant that now stood on the stretched horizon between its parents.
“So they don’t end just like that.” Ari completed the riddle and rolled another mango out of his harness. He was his best friend. He skipped the “I told you so.”
Ari spent the remaining half-hour standing. He unwrapped a packet of chocolate Zuckerbergs, and they chewed silently.
“Yours really taste the best,” Kfir conceded.
“The greatest!” Ari agreed. “My father says we make more from these cookies in a month than all the savories put together in a quarter.”
Kfir stared at the sky and the swathe of stars emanating from it. The watchtower positioned him between heaven and earth, and he filled his lungs with the humid southern air, so different from its northern counterpart. The distance from Maoz Agam ruled out weekend leave, so he only got to see his parents when he could get an army flight up north – about once a month, and even less than that of late. Ayala was studying to be a teacher at the Strip College, and Kfir had already turned down two flights one after another for her.
“I’m glad I’m keeping you on the ground,” she told him after the first one. He probably should have taken the second flight, perhaps it would have delayed the inevitable, but Kfir didn’t regret it, not even now. He remembered that weekend, that bad, broken weekend when he insisted on clinging to their relationship despite the coldness gusting from Ayala. He remembered the chilling silences and the sting of disappointment. He knew he was making a mistake even then, but what is a magnet to
do when faced with a refrigerator door?
Before them nature celebrated, food chains adorning its inflated chest, and predators’ eyes glimmered beyond the binocular lenses. Kfir listened to the choir of savannah crickets – their number identical to the number of stars in the sky according to Maasai legend – knowing they were merely fulfilling their function. If only he knew with as much confidence what his function would be when the final guard shift came to an end.
Ari handed him another cookie. “Bro, I know you’re capable of getting depressed from just about anything,” he said, “but don’t tell me now, too. We’re getting discharged and off we go – just like you wanted, remember?”
That wasn’t accurate. It isn’t depression, Kfir thought, and it’s not from nothing. His gaze was fixed on the horizon, although right now there was nothing to hang onto. Random shouts in Swahili bounced in the distance, and apart from a few isolated bonfires, the refugee camps were blanketed in darkness. By contrast, the lights of Kfar Darom were soft and yellow, and beyond the Mara River, Neve Baobab and Netzarim also glimmered. The college dorms couldn’t be seen from here, and maybe that’s a good thing, he thought. What you can’t see won’t dazzle you.
The yards of the settlers’ homes were filled with crates and containers, turning the lawns yellow, and the smell of cardboard boxes and adhesive tape drifted in the air.
“Do you really think that in three weeks’ time all this will be demolished?”
“I really think it’s the right move,” Ari replied, “and I actually do believe this prime minister for a change.” Kfir knew that his father would make a point of mentioning that this prime minister had also promised that Netzarim would be as safe as Tel Aviv. “And anyway,” Ari added, scratching himself, “don’t forget that when the disengagement begins we’ll already be far away from here. We’ll see it all on the news. Maybe.”
Kfir hadn’t forgotten (of course he hadn’t forgotten); after all it was he who had suggested to Ari that they bring their flight forward, but when he tried to imagine them far away from here, he couldn’t. Or even the next day that would be packed with the regiment commander’s summary, the feel of their discharge papers at the processing base, and the long trip to Maoz Agam and his father, and his mother. Home. Homes.
Now Kfir scratched himself too, and they stood like that, two knights-in-training in apple-cinnamon armor facing the humming night.
“Bro, didn’t we say you were going to take off that idiotic beard?” Ari finally asked.
“We said by the time we’re discharged, she’s still got a few more hours.”
“You called her, didn’t you?” Ari was good at these things. “You shouldn’t have.”
“We booked a lodge at Baringo a month ago for this weekend. She was supposed to wait for me tomorrow at Kissufim – I had to call.”
“There’s no ‘had to’ – there’s ‘couldn’t help yourself’.”
“This isn’t a good time to quote me.”
“You shouldn’t have called,” Ari repeated, “and it’s time you stopped this grieving.”
“I didn’t say I was griev…” the beard itched, “it doesn’t matter anymore now. I cancelled the lodge.”
“Did you get a refund at least?”
“There’s always a cancellation fee.”
“You could have gone on your own,” Ari said, “without the beard,” he stressed.
“What would I do there on my own?” A pink flash – an endless carpet of mocking flamingo pairs on the lake shore stunned him.
“You might have met someone. There are others besides her.”
“I’m not like you when it comes to these things,” Kfir said. “You know I’m not.”
A minute passed before Ari asked, “All right then, what exactly did she say to you?”
“Ayala?” Kfir thought he’d never want to talk about it, but now he discovered he was glad he’d been asked. “That she’s sorry but nothing’s changed, that this isn’t it, and something annoying about timing and that what’s supposed to happen happens. And something even more annoying about thinking she needs to be with someone who’s more like her.”
“Like her? Bullshit,” Ari declared, “opposites attract.”
“You’ve never seen her.”
“It’s universal, bro.”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know if we were alike or different. D’you know, one Friday…” He wanted to tell him about their second date – they’d seen a movie at Cinema Palace and when they came out they found a small, abandoned wood cabinet near the station and decided to take it with them to Kfar Darom. He wanted to tell him he’d felt like a bird building its nest – contentment and belonging and power and warmth and a connection with the good, wise, furnishing cosmos. There was something so stable about her, and tangible, and she still left. “Never mind.” He changed his mind. “She also said she’s keeping her fingers crossed for me, and she wants us to stay friends, and I should write to her after we leave.”
Kfir shrugged. “Maybe. I told you I intend to write a kind of journal anyway. What difference does it make if I keep it to myself or it gets sent somewhere?”
Ari’s arms dropped in disappointment and a hint of apple-cinnamon wafted through the watchtower. “D’you know what my father did right after he came out of the army? He worked in the mailroom at Whitman’s. I’ll let you read his biography.” Ari kept the book in his room. “He describes how humiliating and banal it was.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“Is that what you want? To work in someone’s mailroom? How long did you even date her? Two weeks? Two months?”
“And a half.”
“Mark my words, bro, don’t make that mistake.” ‘Mark my words’ was Ari’s secret weapon. “And if you want to write from out there, then start a blog or something.”
“A blog, how? I don’t think we’ll have internet. We’ll be traveling from place to place most of the time.”
“You mean we’ll be driven. I can’t believe I agreed to an organized trip.”
“Don’t start that again. It was the most reasonable I could find over there. It’s a done deal, isn’t it?”
“It is, it’s a done deal. What time is it?” Ari stretched, inviting their discharge to start speeding toward them, toward the inevitable reunion.
“Four minutes.”
“Did you happen to check who’s taking over from us?”
“Zvi and Eyal.”
“Levi or Yanai? That 4-F Levi is capable of coming late even tonight.”
“Yanai,” Kfir replied. “Tell me something, have you told your parents yet?” He was under the impression that Ari talked to them about everything. Maybe the divorce made all the difference. Maybe the money.
“I told them I was flying out with a friend, but they still think it’s only for the launch. They don’t know about the trip.”
“And mine still think we’re doing the equator,” said Kfir. “Is there any chance they won’t let you go so close to being discharged?”
Ari smiled. “It doesn’t work like that with us. Although my mother won’t be happy about it, that’s for sure. She didn’t want me to fly out there in the first place. She’d rather the launch was in Oxford. The army too, come to think of it.”
“So maybe she’ll be pleased because it’s an organized trip.”
“It’ll only worry her even more. She’ll want to see the itinerary and go over every detail. Here.” Ari split the last cookie with his friend. “We’ll each worry about our own.”
Easy to say, Kfir thought; harder for someone who wasn’t born with a Zuckerberg spoon in his mouth. He knew his parents wouldn’t stand in his way. On the contrary, they’ll even be happy for him in two different ways that’ll leave him sad and frustrated. He tried to imagine himself there in less than two weeks – beyond the mountains, beyond the darkness – and couldn’t. Or the takeoff or landing, and the foreign weather.
The Lonely Planet he read every night said there was no time difference – the time in Palestine would be identical to the time in Israel. He glanced at his watch. That means it’s one minute to ten there as well.
That calmed him, for a moment.
She looked at Ari.
The secretary could have gone on staring at Staff Sergeant Ari Zuckerberg all day. He made her think about bed linen. She tried to imagine what he’d look like a few months from now, as a civilian, and bet on a Tel-Avivian version of Jude Law – thick, curly, sun-bleached hair and that smile that scattered an apple-cinnamon aroma around her. And bed linen.
Actually, she thought, the floor would do just as well. She glanced at the bland carpet on the office floor, measuring it, and her heart pounded in her bra.
As for Kfir, who was sitting on Ari’s right, she didn’t particularly dwell on his future. He looked like someone she’d fix up with one of her good friends – nice, or harmless, and actually, she thought, it’s the same thing.
The sudden ring of the telephone rolled up the carpet and hurriedly folded up the bed linen.
“Yes,” she answered, “two for a discharge talk. Zuckerberg,” she looked at Ari, “and…” now she needed the form, “Wilman. The regiment commander wants you to go into his office,” she looked at Ari. “Take the forms in with you,” she looked at Ari.
Colonel Re’em Douani moved his wheelchair slightly when they came in. He rose a little, and patted with satisfaction the artificial scales of the stuffed crocodile head mounted on the wall. Yesterday had marked a year since the incident, and in the past week he’d felt stronger. He’d even resumed joking (“So I told him, it’s true, but don’t forget, lies don’t have a leg to stand on either!”). Kfir had been on weekend leave when it happened. He was picking up his clean laundry from his mother when the report about the terrorist attack in the Strip vanquished the romantic comedy she was watching in the living room. With the news broadcast came the phone ringing to call him back, and his father had driven him to the train station with his younger brother’s envious eyes accompanying them. On the way his father had called the wounded regiment commander a “national hero”.
Now they saluted, and Ari hissed, “Last but one.” This morning, when they’d saluted at the end of the discharge talk with the battalion commander, before they’d joined the guarded convoy to the regiment, he’d reminded Kfir, “Two more.” He’d been counting them down since the beginning of the week.
The regiment commander waited until the forms had been placed on his desk, and motioned for them to sit down.
“How are you, Wilman?”
“I’m fine, sir.”
“Our last meeting was under happy circumstances. The certificate of merit was well deserved.”
An aerial photograph occupied most of the space behind the colonel. Kfir located Kfar Darom and the watchtower they had manned last night, and traced a straight line between it and the Strip College dorms. In the photograph all the rooms were dark. The line wasn’t particularly long, but the scale was missing.
“This isn’t it,” she’d said, not knowing what she’d done. The short, nuclear sentence had split his congenital loneliness atom, leaving only fallout behind it. “This isn’t it” was a sentence in the wake of which nothing can grow other than mutated emotions. A destructive sentence of the iniquitous “Kfir, Ze’evi, come into the living room, please. Mom and I need to tell you something” family.
This isn’t it. A sentence that leaves no room for what if. He wasn’t angry with her – she hadn’t promised him anything. It was he who’d fantasized about where they’d live and how they’d fill their life together with the warm quiet required for routine to grow: him in the yard and Ayala marking papers – one hand braiding a strand of hair and then undoing it, the other holding the red pen, bringing it to her mouth and then moving it away. It was he who’d been premature. There was no point in it – Ayala was looking for someone like her and different from him. Good thing he won’t be here soon. Good thing he’s going away.
He followed the twisting Mara that crossed the Strip from north to south. Kfir had a first-hand acquaintance with the river – its two banks frequently covered with tank tracks and army bootprints, the sewage flowing uninterrupted from the refugee camps – sewage and chemicals used to prepare cheap explosives and building materials – but despite that, in the aerial photograph the Mara looked tranquil and graceful. If Sharon’s disengagement (“uprooting”, his father patiently corrected him in his mind) leads to peace after all, perhaps the area could be turned into a nature reserve – giraffes, elephants, tourist groups, and herds of buffalo will cross the borders in the big migration and wash over the savannah in their passing. Hippos will flap their small candy-like ears, and water fowl will dot the landscape like pink and white Zuckerberg marshmallows.
On the wall, under the aerial photograph, smiled Chief Natero Kop – top of the most wanted list, the black Moby Dick of every IDF Captain Ahab, and the man directly responsible for the deaths of fifty Israelis, and hundreds of wounded, including the charge that blew apart the regiment commander’s jeep and cost Douani his legs. The photograph was particularly bad. His shúkà – the traditional Maasai sheet worn by the tribal chief – was red like an open wound, the two missing teeth on his lower gum opened a gaping black well, and earrings as grim as though they’d been condemned to death by hanging dangled from his torn earlobes. Kfir knew it was the Maasai way, but sometimes he thought the Mambo-Jumbos insisted on adhering to all those customs that actually played into the hands of the radical right wing with regard to the disengagement (“uprooting!” his younger brother fumed). The chief sported the two famous, heavily beaded bandoliers across his chest.
“It’s not easy being discharged.” Douani unintentionally managed to accurately capture the feelings of one of his men. Ari glanced at Kfir’s watch. They had a six-hour journey ahead of them to Kiryat Dor where they would hand in their IDF ID cards and have their civilian ID cards, which they had handed in three years ago, returned to them. On the way he told Kfir he hoped they wouldn’t be landed with emergency reserves mobilization orders and their flight would be grounded. The base
buzzed with warnings of a civilian uprising that would erupt as soon as the bulldozers began biting into the settlers’ homes.
Civilian life burned in his friend’s bones, but Kfir felt he didn’t have enough oxygen to feed his excitement at being discharged. There aren’t infinite possibilities, he thought, there’s only one – the one that’s taking place. The arbitrary one. The one that may be happening, is happening, did happen. The one he now avoided imagining and looking over its shoulder.
Douani found his pen. “Zuckerberg?” he read from the top of the page.
Ari stood up, restraining himself from hopping up and down.
“Wilman,” he looked at the form. “I see your family’s from Maoz Agam.”
“Yes.” He hoped the page had been spared the divorce.
“So, what are your plans? To go home and help out on the farm?” Homes, Kfir corrected him soundlessly and passed his hand over his smooth cheeks. Last night they’d still been encased in a beard. “And then a discharge party? A trip? I mean, your lot don’t pass on the escape.”
Ari didn’t notice, but Kfir recognized the reprimand in Douani’s smile. “We’re flying out in a week and half,” he pointed to Ari and then to himself, and then to Ari again.
“Where to?” the regiment commander asked.
“The Middle East. Palestine.”
“Pleasure?” the regiment commander asked.
“And business,” Ari added. “A launch.” There was pride in his voice. “I’m representing our consortium.”
“Remind me?” Douani ordered.
“Confectionery. Zuckerberg Chocolate.”
“The ad of the boy with the cookie tree and the giraffes is yours?”
“It is.”
“Nice,” said the regiment commander. “Where in Palestine?”
“All over,” said Kfir. “It’s a trip called ‘Authentic Palestine for Young People’.” Ari rolled his eyes. Kfir didn’t like the name either, but the itinerary looked good. And the price was reasonable. “The good thing about this trip,” Ari squirmed in his chair, but Kfir wanted to explain, “is that after twelve days you go to a farm and work there before going on. It reduces costs considerably.”
“And where is this farm?”
“Al-Ja’una. Two hours north of Yaffa.”
Although booking two places on ‘Authentic Palestine for Young People’ had been Kfir’s idea, Ari had needed more than one ‘mark my words’ to persuade him to divert their destination. At first Kfir had thought of the equator – not particularly original and they wouldn’t be the first, that much was true, but he didn’t want to explore the world – the outside was mapped. The inside wasn't. His plan was that they’d rent an off-road vehicle and take off. With a vehicle like that, encased in a steel frame with a window, they could cross the border to Tanzania, bypass Uganda from the south, and gallop westward across the dunes through Congo and Gabon, with the GPS’ voice intoxicated by the famous latitude, by the absolute zero. Weeks of driving, a whole continent from end to end, all the way to the salty smell of the sea. All the way to the Atlantic.
“Don’t miss al-Quds,” the regiment commander ordered. “It is, after all, Jerusalem. Every Jew should visit it, in my opinion – us Israelis too. Just take into account that it’s a very expensive city. My brother-in-law was there not long ago – he had a great time.”
“We’ll be passing though al-Quds as well,” Kfir said.
“That’s where my launch is,” Ari added.
“Palestine,” the regiment commander summed up, “very nice. Not a routine destination for young people.”
Ari looked pleased by this assertion. It was more or less what he’d said to Kfir about a month ago, when he’d invited him to join him – right before he added his ‘mark my words’.
There was a knock on the door, and the secretary came in. “The chopper’s waiting for you,” she informed the regiment commander and looked at Ari. Douani’s desk is also an option, she mused, wrapped in the regimental flag.
Thunder split the sky. The regiment commander looked out of the window. Plump drops trickled down the pane. “The rainy season is longer than usual this year, eh?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s the middle of August, and outside it’s like the beginning of May.” If he’d been able to, he’d have stood up now and gone outside – navigations, opening up a route, locating wanted fugitives – anything. He wheeled himself back behind his desk. Kfir saluted. Ari immediately followed suit. “Last one,” he signaled.
“Wilman,” the regiment commander said before they left, “stay for a moment, please.”
“We’re one of the three companies with the highest growth rate in the food industry in the past year and all he can remember is the giraffes?” Ari grumbled at the bus station.
“But that means the ad was a success, doesn’t it?”
“What did he want?”
“He asked me about signing on,” Kfir replied. “He asked if I wanted to go on an officers course. He said the army will be facing difficult challenges after the disengagement.” Ari waited. “I told him I’d already promised to go, that we’ve already got our plane tickets, and I can’t.”
“That’s right,” Ari said, and offered his friend a handful of colorful powdered sweets. He looked relieved.
“Where’s this from?”
“Here, from the machine. I didn’t even know we sold in the regiment as well.”
“Isn’t it weird for you to buy them? You must have cupboards full of them at home.”
“It’s only three shillings. And I’m not at home.” He wiped the crumbs from his phone screen.
“Are you going to call her?” Ari had exchanged numbers with the secretary before they’d left the office.
“This isn’t it, but I’m going to write her a journal from over there.”
“Don’t be such a crocodile,” Kfir said. “What’s her name anyway?”
“Gisele.” Ari glanced at his cellphone. “Gisele Three, actually,” he smiled. “It’s all a matter of timing.”
About a month earlier, toward the end of one of their guard duties, Ari told him about the launch for the first time and suggested Palestine.
Kfir wanted to know more about the trip.
“Short. Three or four days. I don’t feel like going to that godforsaken hole on my own.”
“What are you supposed to do there?”
“A launch. It’s simple – you shake hands and pose for photographs. There’s also a speech apparently. My dad asked me to go in his place. He says it’ll be my baptism of fire.”
Baptism of fire? Kfir thought it was a wild exaggeration. “I don’t know,” he said. “When is it anyway?”
“Early October. Staying in a hotel. All expenses paid by the company. What’s there to know?”
“It’s not what I planned.” Kfir had intended to work during September and save up half of the rental for a second-hand off-road vehicle and then – the equator.
“I know what you planned, bro. We planned it together, but the equator isn’t going anywhere, mark my words. And it’s only in October,” he reminded him. “You can work all of September. And if we still want to go there, we can do it afterward.”
“You’re starting your studies. You won’t have time to really travel.”
“Then let’s really travel.”
“In Palestine. We’ll find something to do there. And anyway, everyone goes to the equator. This is an opportunity for something different – the world isn’t full of them, mark my words.”
In the bookstore in Kfar Darom he found a used copy of Lonely Planet. After the final project that exempted him from the history matriculation exam, Palestine wasn’t completely foreign to him. Kfir knew that his great-grandfather had attended the Seventh Zionist Congress at the turn of the last century in Basel that had discussed the recommendations of the delegation to Africa. The pogroms in Russia had compelled Herzl to find an available refuge for his people, and the delegation had been asked to inspect the area being proposed for the Jews in the east of the continent, and it returned to Europe with clear-cut, positive conclusions. After stormy debates, and on the strength of a single vote, it was decided to adopt the Uganda Plan for Jewish Settlement in Africa, and the rest is history. Kfir knew that his great-grandfather ardently supported Herzl and voted in favor of the plan. He suspected that his great-grandfather had been the single vote. Thanks to, or no thanks to, him – depending on who you ask and in which of the two homes you happen to be in  – Palestine was abandoned, and the Wilman family too came to Israel and was housed in the north, like many other immigrants who were sent to the Spear and Sickle settlements.
He found al-Quds in Lonely Planet, and even the location of the hotel where the launch was to be held. On one of the following pages he came across the Al-Mukhtar Tours ad.
“Look.” He showed Ari the tour route on the computer at the base. At the bottom of the page a man in a lustrous silk shirt crossed his hands next to a minibus.
“‘Authentic Palestine for Young People’, bro? Are you serious?”
Kfir nodded. He’d expected resistance. “There’s also ‘Classic Palestine for Families’, ‘Magical Palestine for Lovers’, and a ‘Palestine for Hasidim Package’. There’s more. It’s the best one I could find.”
“And who’s he?”
“His name is Mokhsein. He’s the guide and the driver. That’s what it says. Look,” he navigated to the photo section and presented his friend with proof from years ago: Mokhsein, landscape, minibus, and a panorama of smiling Scandinavian women.
Kfir hadn’t been infected with the blond rush typical of many, Israeli or Maasai, but it seemed that in the pictures the fair-haired Scandinavian women shared a single, calming and frivolous consciousness. “It says people from all over the world take this trip.”
“There are Scandinavian women in Scandinavia. There’s no need to go all the way to Authentic Palestine for Young People for that. And organized, no less. As far as I’m concerned we can fly next week to Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen – you choose – and from there to the launch.”
“I’ve already told you, I don’t have the money to hop from country to country. That’s precisely why I have to work.”
“I can give you a loan, bro.”
“I won’t take even a shilling from you. That’s another advantage of this trip – after a few days we go to a farm to volunteer, and it’s deducted from the price. I read it’s very common over there.”
“I don’t volunteer.”
“So call it work – a few hours on the farm each day. It says the farm is located in one of the most beautiful parts of Palestine.”
“Who works a few hours on a farm each day?”
“Me, you, anyone else who’s in the group. See this picture.” There were wooden huts there on a hill adorned with olive trees. “They make cheese there.”
“For how long?”
“At the farm? Two weeks and two days. Then we continue with the trip.”
“We pay to work there for two weeks? That Mokhsein’s a genius.”
“We don’t only work. We’ll get to see all of Palestine – it’s not a big country. Look, this for example is from a town called Umm-Rashrash. We get there at the end, after the farm.”
Ari lingered. “Are dresses like that allowed? I was sure all the women there have to walk around with veils. And shopping? I thought they draw water all day or feed the camels or something.”
“No way. Lonely Planet says that in general it’s a very liberal country, and that Palestine is the Americans’ main ally in the Middle East.”
“All right.”
“All right? That’s it? You’re in?”
“Yes. It’s an opportunity. There aren’t many – I told you. We’ll go on this trip, bro, this is exactly what you need.” His finger tapped merrily at the feet of the Scandinavian women.
“What I need?” The day before, the breakup from Ayala had happened. Kfir looked at the picture again.
“What you need,” confirmed his friend.
“What I need?” Kfir repeated. “What you need.”
“What we both need. Mark my words.”
And from the moment the booking had been confirmed, Palestine had become the liberator of their liberation, of their discharge. A week and half from now they’d be on the plane, and six hours and forty minutes later they’d be landing. Far below them the bulldozers would be making their way to Ayala’s Strip.
The driver exchanged a few words with the soldiers guarding the Strip checkpoint, and everything was left behind – the patrols, firing zones, the spikes made from commiphora spines across the narrow roads, fences and watchtowers, the boobytrapped goats, the spears, Ayala and the hot breaths in her room shuttered from the inside, the baby elephant and its grey but stable and undivorced parents on the horizon that they had guarded so very many times until yesterday.
Kfir loathed partings. He always thought no one understood as he did the rupture and the loss. Everyone celebrated what was to come without bowing their head over what had been, and the moments that would never again return were shoved into the time garbage compressor. At best they’ll become recycled memories. A discharge party was of course out of the question – only space cadets celebrate the weightlessness and the void, and do it in front of cameras too. When they’re alone they hold on tight and stare into the black nothingness reflected through the small windows, Kfir was convinced of it.
A row of transport containers waited its turn on the open ground allocated to them next to the checkpoint. They were empty now, but very soon they’d be packed with life. Whole, round, complex families would be packed into simple rectangles against their will.
Kfir wondered if his parents would use two separate containers if Maoz Agam were ever evacuated as part of a peace treaty with South Sudan. And maybe it should be forgotten that promises shouldn’t be broken and accept the regiment commander’s offer (but he remembered, of course he remembered). Second Lieutenant Kfir Wilman gradually disappeared into the twists of an alternative history. Every choice left an unresolved maze of lost possibilities.
The bus turned onto the highway to the capital and smoothly merged into the traffic. Lucky. All roads now led to civilian life, and Kfir felt as strange as a hitchhiker in it. He woke up three hours later, when the driver announced a short break in Beit Shemesh.
It was raining, making it difficult for the diesel engine to climb between the forested hills. From here the Maasai refugee camps looked like the south of another, alternate country, but the armored monuments along the side of the road reminded him that this was indeed Israel. Kfir knew his father had fought here in the Kenyan militias in sixty-seven. He suddenly felt hungry. And thirsty. He leafed through the book – he read it every night and had even managed to learn a few basic words in
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to remember the name of that thing we said we’d eat there right after we land. You know, that paste that’s a bit like matoke, the stuff you eat with that round bread. Here,” he showed Ari the picture, “ana bidi hummus.” He practiced in the foreign language.
“What time is it?”
At the entrance to Beit Shemesh the bus maneuvered and parked, and the rain stopped. “I’ve got to get a drink,” Kfir said. “Want anything?”
“I’m getting off too.”
“Don’t worry, if there’s Zuckerberg I’ll buy Zuckerberg.”
“I know,” Ari smiled, “come on, I’m buying. Let’s see if our Grand Banana Cinnamon has already made it to this hole.”
Outside, tourists crowded around a sign announcing the crossing of the equator and posed for photographs with one foot on one side of it and one on the other, or drew an imaginary latitude or made a zero sign and smiled – the usual clichés. Ari walked between them with a look that promised “Mark my words, we won’t be like them.”
They arrived in Kiryat Dor in the afternoon. It was Kfir’s third visit to the capital, and this time too he did not feel invited, but summoned.
In other cities whose name was taken as spoils of war, something of their previous incarnation could be found – in Beit Lokichar a robe weaving workshop had been preserved, there were authentic Maasai cuisine restaurants at Mitzpe Kakamega, and a model village in New Kariko, where actors portrayed the red-swathed, cattle-herding, spear-wielding tribespeople. In Tel Aviv too there was a museum dedicated to the Kisumu ruins.
But in Kiryat Dor no trace remained of old, black Eldoret. Israel’s capital constituted a precedent, and its language was uncompromising and unapologetic. The city concentrated the centers of control as though there was a powerful magnet in its navel pulling neckties, official cars, and bluetooth earpieces. At the entrance to the city a fountain gushed, and Kfir felt he was being swept up toward a civilian waterfall.
He first came to the city for a compulsory field trip to the Israeli parliament with Grade 7/A of the Pa’atey Sudan Regional Council State School. (His father came along as the armed escort, and Agura, the teacher, insisted on calling him “Mister Spokesman”, much to his oldest son’s mortification.) The highlight of the trip was supposed to be the vehement speech of Opposition Leader Shimon Peres in favor of resuming negotiations with Uganda, but like many of his classmates, Kfir too graded the speech only in second place – Peres was no competition for Ma’ayan Pinsker, whose white blouse got wet after the water fight between the boys and the girls on the lawns of HaPa’amon Park.
Kfir returned to the city years later to enlist. He remembered the parting from his parents and younger brother, and the ten meters of eternity separating the tight, multiple participant hug and the entrance to the enlistment chain. For a moment, as short as his new crewcut, they once again looked like one happy family.
Now a gaunt, unfit-for-active-duty soldier sat facing him, a flat screen between them. The discharge form spewed faintly out of the IDF printer. Ari, who’d already been given back his ID card, welcomed civilian life with a triumphant smile. For him the chain of enlistment had been unraveled in one go. Kfir looked out of the narrow window at the whitewashed baobab stumps that fenced the base. Who knows when he’d return to Kiryat Dor? Maybe this was the last time. He wasn’t planning on working in the public service; he hadn’t planned anything apart from the approaching
trip, and he couldn’t even imagine that.
Now he felt that his destiny resembled that of prisoners who lose their way forever on the day they are released.
It was quick – faster than an extraction or uprooting. The symbolism folded very neatly in the sign-out form signed off by the quartermaster amused Ari. For Kfir, the symbolism provided additional proof that every link in the chain of his life knows what the next link is going to be before he does.
Light rain and evening awaited them outside, and Ari talked on his cell with his parents and smiled. The rhinoceros-grey safari pants that came down to his knees and the white short-sleeved shirt accentuated his tanned skin.
They returned their monotonous uniforms to the quartermaster, and Kfir knew this was a one-time opportunity to find his new clothes, but all he had were the faded jeans and creased striped shirt that had been relegated to the bottom of his backpack since that last Saturday with Ayala. When he kicked (twice) the plastic bag that floated nobly on its way, he felt that even inanimate objects were trying to intimate something to him.
After the divorce his mother became addicted to classes at the regional cultural center. After the second 'Introduction to Interior Design' lesson, she put a mirror in the hallway. “It gives you a sense that the house is bigger,” she explained. “Don’t you think?” Kfir answered that it was only because fewer people live in the house now. Up to tenth grade he’d been more extroverted.
Now he lingered by one of the puddles that had collected on the sidewalk and glanced into it. The sky hurried to be reflected in it, and Kfir realized his mother was right – it really does give you a sense that the world is bigger. A few steps behind him Ari laughed – his family telephone conversation was animated. He talked and he listened and went into detail and concluded with “Great. So I’ll see you soon.”
Kfir didn’t want to hurry. He was thirsty, confused, and unprepared for what was to come. Not ready. Unripe. “You hungry?” he asked his friend.
“At home,” Ari answered and raised his arm to hail a matatu to the central bus station. The air warmed up. The rain sizzled when it touched the ground. The rainy season fought for its life – soon it would lose and be replaced by its dry sister, and the whole country would turn yellow. In Palestine, he’d read, there are four seasons. Weird.
They stood on the sidewalk. The traffic was dense and slow and resembled a stew packed with pungent electricity and red lights. Kfir wiped the water off his face and looked at the vehicles flooding the road. Perhaps floating on it. In some sat couples – two by two – and the cars resembled private Noah’s arks.
Since the divorce he’d made an effort to divide his time between his father and mother. To divide and add up and multiply ex nihilo. The formula was complex, and the fact they lived near each other helped a little.
He put off the two conversations with his parents, and didn’t call his brother either. Kfir assumed Ze’evi would be busy with the feeding rounds on the farm or training for his enlistment next year. Dreams of the elite Naval Commandos flooded his younger brother’s brain, and they didn’t speak much. “So what now?” he asked.
“Now we start living, bro. Actually, first we get a cab, and then.”
No matatus stopped on this side of the road, and they crossed Chamberlain Boulevard. “It’s because of the game with Cameroon,” Ari said when two packed minibuses drove past them. The third, almost full of blue-and-white supporters, stopped. “I don’t understand how people still think we’ll make it to the World Cup after the draw with Morocco,” he declared as the door opened.
“We’ll beat them in Rabat,” Kfir said. “I believe we’ll qualify in the end.”
“I envy you sometimes.” Ari didn’t say if he meant it seriously, or if this was one of those times. “How much for two to the central bus station?” he asked, taking out a twenty-shilling bill.
“Fifteen,” said the driver and handed him a five-shilling coin.
It was strange to suddenly be paying for public transport, Kfir thought. Nobody knew that until an hour ago they’d been soldiers. “I’ll pay you back at he bus station. We’ll buy tea or something.”
“Seven and a half new shillings! You promise to pay it back?” said Ari, “Don’t make me laugh.”
The drive took forever. The swarm of supporters in the backseat continuously hummed, “El-El Israel!” and “No, no we won’t move, Cameroon’s gonna get screwed!”
Ari smiled, and Kfir was assailed by an all-embracing ‘this isn’t it’ woefulness.
Because of the traffic jams and the patronizing signage in Kiryat Dor’s central station, they only arrived at the terminal at eight-fifteen. The train to the north had already left. Ari was disappointed for his friend, but Kfir felt relieved. He wanted to stand still. To stop moving for a moment. To drop anchor between the Noah’s arks.
“When’s your next train?”
“There’s another one at midnight.”
“Only at midnight? What will you do here until then?”
“Dunno. Maybe walk around the shops.”
“Since when do you walk around shops?” Ari stretched his neck and searched, high above everybody, for the sign to Tel Aviv.
“Or maybe I’ll watch the game,” Kfir pointed to a nearby Wagamama restaurant.
“Aren’t you going to phone home?”
“I haven’t even told my parents I cancelled the lodge. They think I’m only coming on Sunday.” He shrugged.
“You know what?” Ari said, suddenly understanding. “I’m an idiot. Really. Sorry, bro – come to my place. Go home tomorrow, or on Sunday. Don’t stay here until the middle of the night. Forget the game, they’ll never beat Cameroon, mark my words.”
Copyright © Yoav Avni 2013. Translation copyright © Yoav Avni 2013.
Translated by Margalit Rodgers
Yoav Avni was born in Israel in 1969. His first book, a collection of short stories entitled Those Strange Americans was published in 1995 by Tamuz. His first novel, Three Things for a Desert Island (Shlosha Devarim le’iy Boded) was published in 2006 by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan. This novel became a bestseller in Israel and is considered a cult book among Israeli backpackers. The book was nominated for the 2006 Geffen Award. Avni’s second novel, To Be (Ha-chamishit shel Chong Levi), was published by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan in 2009 and won the 2010 Geffen Award. His third novel, What If (Herzl Amar) was published by Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan in 2011 and won the 2012 Geffen Award. In 2010 Avni translated Charles Kingsley’s The Water Boys into Hebrew, and in 2012 translated Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Avni’s writing is influenced by authors like Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut.

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