The Bicycle Boy


Photo: Dan Porges

The Bicycle Boy

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Eli Amir

Translated from Hebrew by Michael Sharp


Even after visiting his son a few times and becoming acquainted with the life style and dress code of the kibbutz, he again arrived in an elegant suit, a tie, a grey felt hat with a black band around it, wearing two toned British shoes and with a flower in his lapel. Abu El-Wazir, like a high ranking official, no less, refused to adapt to the khaki fashion; he adhered to the kind of suits that immigrants arrived in and came to the kibbutz like a patriarch out of the old world into the very heart of the new revolutionary world. From the pocket of his waistcoat he pulled out a watch attached to it by a golden chain, opened the lid, glanced at the dials, returned the watch to its place and continued to walk about the grounds like someone visiting one of his estates.
These visits embarrassed Nuri. He knew very well what the kibbutz members and their children thought of his father and his apparel. There were times he was proud of him, but mostly felt ashamed, and as if the apparel wasn’t enough, his father would softly sing Arabic melodies that played in his soul, spoke Arabic to him in this place where Hebrew was revered and where it was demanded of all to put their mother tongue and its culture behind them and adapt to the new Israeli culture. The patriarch walked around the grounds rolling prayer beads between his fingers behind his back like a representative of a Baghdadi Baron Rothschild or the Baron himself in person having gone astray and landed up in an unfitting place.
Nuri feared every visit of his. He was put to the test here daily, and had to succeed, not disappoint, and prove himself with each and every challenge. He told his father about kibbutz life in general terms and went into greater detail when speaking about his daily routine, about his studies and the social and cultural life. He told his father that even today, after three years on the kibbutz, he is still trying to understand the new world revealed to him, trying to know more about it, to become better acquainted with the people who came from cold climates to this valley that in summer heats up like a furnace. When his father replied to him, his words were fragmented, half sentences, single words that did not join together to form a sentence. It was evident he wanted to say things he found difficult to extract from within. And Nuri also did not open his heart, did not speak of his doubts and his dreams.
On each visit his father made sure to climb the hill of the deserted Arab village, Abu Shusha, as if it was Kifel, his native village on the banks of the Euphrates. The prophet Ezekiel was buried there, and a few times every year they would be hosted in the house of his grandfather’s brother, an ascetic old man who would offer them cucumbers, hard salted cheese and wonderfully tasty fat barley pita breads; that’s where his father had lived until moving his family to Baghdad so that his sons and daughters could receive an education. In Abu Shusha he wandered amongst the ruins of the houses and abandoned plots of land and prickly pear bushes and orchards that continued to produce delectable choice fruits and aromas. For a few moments in his mind’s eye he saw the Shi’ite farm laborers of Kifel who also made their daily bread from the land; like the people of Abu Shusha they listened to the calls of the muezzin and like them knelt in prayer five times a day. He recalled the colorful roosters that roamed there, heard their crowing, listened to the pealing of the goats’ bells and the braying of the donkeys and inhaled the smells of stone-baked Iraqi pita from busy ovens.
He walked amongst the ruins on the deserted hill. The grapevine trellises were rickety, the water cisterns were abandoned, and one felt a twinge of sorrow for the place’s loss of its inhabitants. His father looked over the valley that had been conquered and tamed, sown and reaped by Muscovite Jews who planned what would be planted and what would be grown on each plot of land, where and when the natural order of things would be interfered with, what kinds of fruits and vegetables would be hybridized and have their forms and tastes enhanced, in their opinion. But Abu Shusha was not enough for his father, he also wanted to see Rubia Fuka and Rubia Tachta, the two other villages close to the kibbutz that had also been abandoned. There too he stood like a patriarch, gazed towards the horizon and asked about the villagers who had lived here before the war, and Nuri told him what he had heard and found out from the members of the kibbutz. Every once in a while his father picked up a clod of earth from the ground of the deserted villages, crumbled and rolled it in the palm of his hand like the prayer beads that praised and glorified the names of the great Allah with its ninety-nine beads.
Nuri’s eyes caressed his father holding a handful of earth, and he too picked up a fistful so that his father would see the new bond formed between him and the soil. His father appeared to be overcome with pity for him and for himself, knowing how harsh and cruel it would be to tear him away from this place here, his life source, and return him to what in his eyes was “home” and what in Nuri’s eyes was darkness.
His shoulders became hunched thinking about it, and his father stood behind him, grasped his shoulders and massaged them and straightened his posture, not understanding that it was he, the one who had fathered him, who was sitting on his shoulders and bending them. He had greatly feared his father’s visit this time and tried to hide his embarrassment over his bearing and anticipated being told what had brought him here. He didn’t like the children of the kibbutz mocking his appearance and was doubly hurt to see his father not adapting to the ways of the new place and apparently refusing to acknowledge them. He was careful not to say a word and feared that his father would understand everything from the expression on his face and the movements of his hands. He therefore wore a frozen expression and waited for nighttime when he would shed the tears of his shame and sorrow into a pillow. He had no difficulty guessing what his father wanted to say to him and why he found it so hard: he must have understood that there was nothing Nuri wanted more than to stay here.
From the entire youth group who had been placed on the kibbutz he was the last one to remain, the only one who had formed an emotional bond that was hard to unravel and why should it be unraveled? Last week, at the end of the day he went up to the education center for an evening dance, and waiting on the dance floor was Tsippi with her mane of orange hair, his dance partner for three years now and the object of his desire. They had met a short time before the first of May rally: Kova, the admired teacher, had asked him to read a poem by Avraham Shlonsky at the rally and he was filled with pride: they had never asked anyone from the youth group to recite a poem at the central first of May rally! He rushed to tell his counselor and please her, but Shlonsky’s poem was a complex puzzle to him with many obstacles, written in Hebrew from another world. He didn’t understand what he was reading and looking up words in the dictionary was not much help, and how could he read a poem he didn’t even understand one line of? A deep anguish fell upon him and he didn’t know how he would rise to the occasion. He was hesitant about taking part and deliberated whether to inform Kova at the last moment that he would not be able to appear, knowing that under no circumstances would the counselor agree to him withdrawing. She had eagerly awaited such an opportunity for her students from the youth group to integrate – after all it was a gesture of recognition and appreciation, and there was no way he could pass it up. During a break for refreshments on one of the days of arduous labor in the crop fields when Genig, a pioneer older than his father, asked him what was bothering him, he told him. Genig asked him to recite the poem.
 “Right here in the middle of the all the dust of the field?” he asked, and Genig replied:  “Yes, why not?” 
He then took off his cap, shook the dust from his shirt, wiped his face and began to recite the poem to the fields of the valley, and when he finished Genig gave him a rare smile and said: “If you think I managed to understand anything, you’re wrong. That’s how it is with poets. But the main thing is that you read well,” Genig reassured him, “and I’m sure you’ll rise to the occasion.” He recited the poem over and over to himself, recited it lying down, getting up and going on his way, so the words would not be forgotten and cause him to fail; not stopping even when he felt that the verses flowed in his blood.
At the rally he understood, belatedly, that Ilana, a student at the institute and slightly older than him, would be reading a poem before him. But sitting at her feet he forgot the insult. At the beach he had seen her thighs and forgot everything; at that moment he only wanted to rest his head between them. Ilana declaimed in a vigorous, decisive voice, filling the auditorium with each syllable clear and whole, enunciated in a perfect indigenous accent. When she finished he opened his eyes and again saw what he had previously seen and forgot that he had to go up on stage, until Kova signaled to him that it was his turn. He regained his composure, went up, and from the stage looked out at the auditorium full of eyes testing him and uttered the first words almost in a whisper in his clearly evident foreign accent. A deep silence prevailed, and while the sorrow and the pain of the exploited and disenfranchised workers of the world fell from his lips, the wonder of those thighs still remained in his head. He finished and for a moment continued standing in the lingering silence, until all at once the youths of the institute broke out into rapturous applause that lasted a long while; uncustomary for an institute that upheld equality and where one is not favored over another. Kova nodded with satisfaction and a wide smile spread across his face; he was proud of the gamble he had taken with the boy from the transit camp.
Perhaps because of this or perhaps other matters, Tsippi went out after him without them having previously decided upon it, and they both slipped away from the eyes of the institute members to a nearby grove. They walked close to each other. He hesitantly touched her hand and held it as she had held his waist on the dance floor. She strengthened her grip on his hand and stood opposite him and when he drew near to her he heard the whisper of her breath merge with the rustling of the wind. He caressed her face like caressing a flower, pressed her close to his body and heard her breathing heavily. He closed his eyes as in daily prayers and did not dare kiss her. They sat in the dark on the rock in the small grove and listened in silence to the wind leafing through the trees.
On the way to his room he felt he was walking in a dream, wondering if she would ever be his girlfriend. If she brought him into their temple as into a dance circle, would he at long last belong and perhaps become one of them?
They continued to meet week after week and he was overwhelmed with joy and asked the counselor to find out whether he could carry on his studies at the Education Institute until his army enlistment. In his mind’s eye he could already see how Tsippi and he would walk into the kibbutz family room and how they would stroll through the grounds arm in arm dressed in white. He wanted to sit with her on the concrete bench opposite the entrance to the dining room for everyone to see that she was his and he was hers, and his father would come, and his very appearance would remind everyone that they, father and son, were not from here.
On more than one occasion it seemed that the patriarch derived pleasure from displaying who he was, from what world he had come and from what status, how he had lived and dressed there, and there were moments when Nuri was even proud of him for having no pretense, for not trying to adapt to them and their new culture that still does not have the power and the presence of his culture. It was amazing that here on the kibbutz he actually behaved like a patriarch and seemed totally different from the introverted man with the drooped shoulders and forlorn eyes who had walked around the settlement they had been sent to like a shadow.
Not long after, he understood that this time his father was determined and resolute, and he realized what he had decided: to uproot him from here with all his youthful joy and his love. But what would he do there in that backwater in which his family had been housed; where would he study, what work would he do, who would he be friendly with, where would he find a corner for himself in the crowded hut dense with the breath of its dwellers? Doesn’t his father see that he’s blossoming here? And how will he tell him of the opening created regarding one of the kibbutz girls whose boyfriend he’s dreamed of becoming for three years? Under no circumstances could he tell him about his love; that indeed is not acceptable to their kind.
He didn’t want to fight with him or cause him distress. On the contrary, he wanted to feel the touch of his warm, caressing, supportive hand. He only told him how much he enjoys being here, and of his desire to stay here until enlisting into the army, “just for the meanwhile,” but his father was rigid in his thinking, and appeared to have sunk back into his anguish. They continued to walk along the kibbutz sidewalks, and his father stopped every once in a while, looked at the small tended gardens in front of the members’ living quarters and inquired over and over about those pioneers – where had they emigrated from, what distinguishes them, what motivated them to do what they had done, and what are their aspirations? He praised and extolled them and Nuri wondered why he wanted to uproot him from them.
The following day they climbed up the hill of the vineyard and from there looked over the Jezreel Valley that spread out onwards: numerous green and brown cultivated plots of land, checkered like the dress of a beautiful lady. His father inhaled the fresh air deeply, he removed his felt hat from his head and revitalized his mop of hair with his fingers. A forty-year-old man whose contemporaries here dance the hora and the krakowiak in circles; develop plans for the future as if they were young adults, while he beneath his fancy clothing has already withered. He had given up on all his dreams, and his mother too had lost her vitality and her dreams. She visited him once here with the baby Herzl, and when she sat opposite him in the dining room he saw before him a tired woman, ill at ease, only thirty-four years old and already burned out, heart-wrenching in her sadness. Being with his parents is hard for him, being without them is hard for him. He felt sorry for them both and didn’t know how to hearten them. Even now he wanted to embrace his father, say a kind word to him, and didn’t do a thing.
“This place is as lovely as our family’s fields in Kifel.”
“Then why do you want to take me out of here?” The words burst out on their own accord, and his father sighed, crumpled his forehead and his eyes turned cloudy. From the pocket of his suit he took out a pack of cheap cigarettes unfitting the pomp of the patriarch, glanced at it and returned it to his pocket. They both went down to Nuri’s room, washed their faces there and went to the dining room courtyard.
They sat on a wooden bench opposite the large grassy area and looked at the sprinklers spraying water in a lively dance. The watered air did nothing to freshen the greyness that was upon his father.
“Father, why do you want me to leave?”
“I need you to help me,” he said in a choked voice and wiped his face from the spray of water.
“I’m not sixteen yet.”
“At your age I also helped my family.”
“This is not Baghdad.”
“I know, I know,” he nodded wearily.
“Father, I’m happy here, I don’t want to leave.”
His father sighed and shifted himself on the bench as if seeking a comfortable position, and on giving up, he rose and put the prayer beads into his pocket, rearranged the knot of his tie, and stood erect. In the dining room his father continued to attempt to persuade him in the language of their birthplace, and Nuri looked left and right, seeing the gazes demanding an apology to the Hebrew language and tried to hint to his father to cease. His father looked at a bowl of vegetables, a plate of herring, a small basket of dark bread and didn’t help himself; not to the bowl, nor the plate nor the small basket. He just poured himself a cup of murky tea and took a small sip, until remembering he hadn’t sweetened it. 
Nuri was also distracted, he couldn’t understand what benefit he would be to the family in the village and why his father was bringing this upon him. Why doesn’t he leave him in the company of these people who he himself didn’t stop admiring? After all, he had described them as fulfilling the vision of social justice according to the prophets, just as the Torah teacher in Baghdad, the sage Shavea, had described them when visiting Israel after the Farhud pogrom of 1941.
“Son,” his father said. “We need you… your brothers and sisters are all alone, doing as they please, I don’t know how they’re getting along with their studies. Not speaking Hebrew, I’m embarrassed to inquire at the school. As for the officials here, it’s difficult; in Baghdad you bribed officials, policemen and judges. Hell, here even bribery is forbidden.” He lit a cigarette and added quietly so that he wouldn’t be heard: “Your mother is sad a lot, maybe you could help us, we’ll move to somewhere else…”
“I don’t understand, do you intend leaving the village?”
“Son, it’s no good there.”
“Where do you want to move to?”
“Jerusalem?” He fell silent owing to the shock and only after some moments found his voice again. “Who am I to make you all move to Jerusalem?” he said and was silent.
“It’s what your mother wants.”
“One can go crazy,” Nuri mumbled, his face flooded with despair.
He father stayed close to him from morning to night. He was becoming tired of hearing about his longings for Baghdad and the River Tigris and found it hard to listen to his complaints and his preaching. Over and over his father reminded him of his responsibility as the firstborn, repeating well-known sayings ad nauseum. There are those who adorn themselves with the firstborn like a treasure from the riches of the caliph Harun al-Rashid, but Nuri was tired of it. If it were up to him, he would bestow it upon his brother Moshi who was worthier than him, and wouldn’t even ask for a glass of water in return.
He wanted his father to be on his way but he extended his stay from day to day and Nuri began to fear the kibbutz members would see this as over-exploiting the measure of their hospitality. Everyone must surely have noticed the out of the ordinary figure wearing a hat and suit and tie and waistcoat, with a pocket watch attached by a golden chain, prayer beads that he rolls between his fingers while walking on the paths of the kibbutz like a pasha in Al Saadoon Park. There were times he was proud of him for not trying to find favor as he had done, and more times when he was embarrassed, already weary of his presence.
Sadly he did not manage to meet with Tsippi on all those nights. Once he managed to slip away on some pretext or other, and the following day, at a cultural event in the evening, she was shy to approach him. He stirred in his chair in his discomfort and every once in a while darted a glance at her and regretted having invited his father to that evening. His presence next to him reminded everyone that the kibbutz was not his home – that he was just a boy from the transit camp who had come here for a limited time.
They listened to an American singer by the name of Kenneth Spencer who sang Paul Robeson’s “Let My People Go” in a deep, moving voice. He had already heard about Robeson’s tireless struggle for equal rights for the Blacks and was deeply impressed. He had never heard a bass like that, a voice that pierces hearts and echoes in one’s chest for days: “Go Down Moses” and “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho.” Every once in a while he glanced at his father to see if he was enjoying the Black singer and the piano pieces and was surprised to find that his father was listening with the curiosity of a boy.
During all the following days he implored him not to force him to return to the village, and his father looked at him with troubled eyes as if asking mercy for himself for being coerced to summon his son’s help like that. He spoke and spoke until it was impossible to withstand his pleading, and the moment he consented he knew he had given up the freedom to live his life as he wished. When he finally accompanied his father to the bus stop and the bus left on its way, even before the dust raised by the wheels had settled he already regretted his promise.
In the evening he went up the hill of the institute and Tsippi moved her finger down the slope of the cleft in his chin, raised it to his conjoined eyebrows and slid it towards the dimple of his left cheek. He still had not plucked up the courage to tell her what he had promised his father, even after they’d caressed and kissed each other, even after their conversation that lasted past midnight.
Afterwards he went to bed and could not sleep. The youth group dormitories were deserted and dark, all his friends there had already returned to the transit camp. Two girls had gone to stay with their friends in the family rooms and he alone remained in the two abandoned buildings. He felt empty and lonely. Not long ago everything was bustling here, buzzing with activity, with courtships and gossip, and now it was surrounded by neglect.
A vague fear fell upon him and he left the night lamp on under the bed. He closed his eyes, agonizing over his doubts until falling asleep. With the dawn his stomach ached and he awoke and wanted to sleep again, to forget his father’s accusing look and his own guilt for fleeing the burden that lay entirely on his brothers’ shoulders, and had the decision been left solely in his hands it would stay that way in the future as well. He’s an egoist, his mind is only on Tsippi and folk dancing and communal singing and the tractor in the crop fields and the illuminated dining room and the trees and flowers and the new world. He wanted so much to be accepted into the Education Institute and Tsippi’s group and to start a new chapter in his life. He was envious of the kibbutz children who were exempt from the heavy burden of responsibilities and obligations and feelings of guilt, and so different from him and his friends – touring the length and breadth of the country, getting to know its mountains and valleys and marking out hiking trails, getting to know all its plants and flowers, searching archeological excavations for their roots and traces of their forefathers the ancient Israelites, a country which they, their descendants, are now turning into their own land.
Everything is endearing to him here, the lawns and the flowers and the trees, and why should he be uprooted from here? After all, it’s the obligation of the parents to ensure the well-being of their children. How could he detach himself from this place and from all the dreams he had woven around it? After all, they depended on him, having given him charge of a tractor from the day he turned fourteen, while their children are only awarded this in their seventeenth year. He acknowledged the magnitude of the responsibility – he worked hard, knew how important manual labor was to these people who saw the Zionist ideologue A.D. Gordon as a prophet. Why is his father cutting into his flesh this way?
He took a day off and went out into the valley whose ground and landscape had become bound to his soul. He passed through fields, the vegetable garden, plots with crops and hay, and walked through large expanses that spread out to Mount Tabor on the horizon, ignoring the beating sun. He never thought a city dweller like himself could love the land this way. Occasionally, while working the fields on the growling tractor, songs written about the valley sprung from his throat, replacing the others he had brought with him from Baghdad, and to the growl of the tractor he rehearsed things he intended to say in front of an audience on any given opportunity. After all, he dreamed of becoming the secretary of the kibbutz in the future and wanted to prove to himself and to their children that a new immigrant could also harbor ambition. They had already nicknamed him “the speechmaker” and he wasn’t sure whether they were being complimentary or mocking him. The kibbutz members didn’t know that he practiced his speeches during the hours he plowed and sowed their land and that his audience was the dust raised by the tractor and the clods of earth that came to life.
He returned from work towards the evening exhausted and hungry, but it was enough for him to lift his eyes to the avenue of palm trees with their leaves fluttering in the wind at the entrance of the kibbutz for his eyes to immediately light up. The palms reminded him of home, Baghdad – sleeping on the roofs and the pigeons flying in the city skies. He looked around him, inhaled deeply the scent of the nearby dairy barn, and down in his soul he felt that his home was here and not there, and certainly not in the remote village in the south where his parents had been housed. The next day too he continued his hike on foot, bidding farewell to the corners of the kibbutz and the animals and wondering how he would detach himself from everything. Each passing day further diminished what was left for him here, and he still hadn’t plucked up the courage to go and tell the counselor and Tsippi that he was forced to leave.
He went up the hill of the abandoned Arab village Abu Shusha, this time because of its missing inhabitants. The vine trellises leaned on their sides, the olive trees stood pale and offended by their unpicked fruits, and only the fig tree continued to blossom, still bearing witness to the children who had picked its fruits and their fathers who had grown them and worked this land.
They had been banished from here, and soon he too would be banished from his place.
He inhaled the scents of the village deeply into his lungs and a heavy cloud darkened his eyes. Signs of the battle were still evident in the ruins. The villagers had joined Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s forces and from their hill had threatened the houses of the kibbutz and their inhabitants, even though they had grown up with the first generation of the kibbutz and had learned each other’s language. The children of Abu Shusha had also eaten in the kibbutz dining room, received medical attention from the doctor and the nurse in the clinic, and had formed a brotherhood with the kibbutz children. War came and drastically changed them.
The smell of a lost world rose to his nostrils, sharp as the smells of home, the smells of the neighborhood and the Jewish market in Baghdad that had been destroyed with their leaving, and he choked up.
He went up to the abandoned village the following day and the day after as well. Out of all places he was attracted to there, now when all his thoughts were given to his forthcoming departure. He wandered among the ruins, visited the defunct flour mill again, the deserted school, the large spacious home of the effendi. He entered the empty mosque, removed his shoes in the custom of the Muslims, placed the palms of his hands to the sides of his mouth and sounded the call of the muezzin: “Allahu Akbar!”
The walls returned a somber echo to the call well-known to them, and he didn’t dare kneel in the Muslim fashion and continue the prayer. He sat on a rock and imbibed the scent of the village. Each year there he would relieve the trees in Abu Shusha of the ripe fruit dangling from their branches like a cow’s teats bursting with milk, he picked juicy plums, crimson clusters of grapes, apricots whose scent and taste were dazzling. The taste of the fruits in the orchards of the valley were insipid in comparison to those here. The local Arabs called these vegetables and fruits of theirs “baladi” local, from here, fruit of the land, home unlike the fruits of the kibbutz that had been hybridized with all sorts of species brought from cold climates, defiling their original flavors. The people of Abu Shusha viewed the pioneers as heretics, people who sought to change the laws of nature: they churned the bowels of God’s earth, plowed it with a pitiless tractor instead of treating it with caressing hands, and so God had cursed them, spoiled their vegetables and fruit by leaving them like an empty shell devoid of taste and smell. During his first summer on the kibbutz, after his father wrote that he would be paying him a visit, he went up the hill and picked a carton of baladi apricots for him, and when his father inhaled the scent a glow spread across his face. He made the traditional blessings of thanks and relished their taste and the memories that arose, and seeing his face Nuri thought: how little it takes to make this good man happy. While contemplating this he heard dogs barking, and he was struck with fear. He remembered the bite he’d received from a local dog who hadn’t stopped mourning his owner who had fled in the war. He had already learned to reprimand him in local Arabic and the dog became accustomed to his presence, but the fear did not pass and he knew that at any moment the dog was liable to punish him for the harm perpetrated on his previous master by kibbutz members and the Palmach, the underground fighting force.
In bed at night he repeatedly asked himself why he had consented to his father’ wish. Why hadn’t he fought for the right to determine his own fate? Tears flowed onto his pillow and marked his surrender. It was decreed that he would never be a Sabra – a native Israeli. True, he had grown a wavy tuft of hair, his skin was suntanned and he went around in short pants whose edges were folded back, but didn’t dare walk barefoot as they did and feel the clods of earth between his toes. A spoiled urbanite like him feared getting the soles of his feet dirty, injuring them with a stone, getting pricked by a thorn, getting stung by a scorpion – unlike these Sabras who grew from the land which is home to them just as it is home to the animals of the field. But more than anything he berated himself about his weakness before his father, for not listening to the dictates of his heart.
Downcast, he descended the hill of Abu Shusha, ashamed in himself and in front of those who change the ways of the world.
In the tumult of the dining room, between the members’ conversations about work and topics that will be debated in the upcoming kibbutz discussion, his mind was distracted from the harsh decree. He drank hot soup and ate potatoes and meatballs that were chiefly bread. He didn’t like their food and missed the various meat patties, kuba, and the fried foods that his mother used to make, but with time became accustomed to it.
As with each morning, he went to the tractor shed and prepared the D6 for work. He smelled the heavy smell of the oil and the diesel and suffered a light dizziness just as in his first days here, before adjusting to the smells of the place. After work he went to the social club, home to bitter arguments that went on into the night and pointed conversations about the realization of the Zionist vision. Everything was debated here: changing priorities and turning the pyramid upside down as far as the Jewish nation is concerned, creating the new Jew, implementing socialism and equality, the Communist manifesto, the Soviet Union as a second homeland, and all the other new dogmas that he didn’t always understand and didn’t always agree with, even with what he thought he understood.
In the clubhouse which was made into a classroom during the afternoon, he once exchanged awkward smiles with a girl who stared at him unabashedly with piercing brown eyes; she smiled at him and scribbled something on a piece of paper, folded it and threw it to him in front of everyone, despite the protestations of the counselor. Another girl had also embarrassed him in this clubhouse – they used to walk together to swap books at the institute’s library and on the way exchanged views about the books they had read, and one warm afternoon she told him there was a boy from the youth group whom she liked and who was totally unaware of it and asked his advice; in his innocence he asked who the boy was. She then gave her delightful smile and asked if he really was interested to know, really-really? By the time he had regained his composure she had already upped and gone and from that day on made sniping remarks at him at every opportunity, and to his friends’ surprise he took all her insults and kept silent. When finally he fell for her beauty and wanted to respond to her initiative, she firmly rejected him. And there was also one to whom he had difficulty speaking words of love in Hebrew, and one night, without thinking, poetic sayings came out of his mouth in Arabic. She stood opposite him like a statue, open-mouthed.
He went to the Education Institute and for the first time plucked up the courage to cross its threshold and ascended the stairs to the roof. From there he gazed down and saw the houses and the trees and the lawns around him. He was familiar with each and every detail and became like an enamored boy seeing the glory and beauty of each part of his girlfriend’s body, and everything seemed close and already brought on a yearning. He had lived here for three years, his soul had become bound to the kibbutz and its people. After all, from his very first day here he’d wanted to feel the pulse of the place – he registered to enlist in the planned fruit-picking on Saturday and tried to persuade his friends to act similarly, but they, unaccustomed to desecrating the Sabbath, firmly refused. During the following weeks there was no job he shunned and his friends mocked him behind his back and to his face, accusing him of converting out of the faith, changing his skin, and being blind to his faults; though at the time he still found no fault and was simply entranced. Here, everyone works according to their ability and towards a common goal and each in turn is recompensed according to his needs, property is shared, a real equality reigns among them, they work the land without pay and live off it; a genuine paradise. He liked this informal and casual society, a society with no class distinctions whose dress and food is uniform; another world. He quickly learned to get by with little, ate what was in the dining room and worked where the foreman assigned him; everything suited and pleased him and he couldn’t understand what his friends were complaining about. Why is his father uprooting him from here now? And does a sixteen-year-old boy have the power to move the whole family to Jerusalem?
“You understand the way they think,” his father said to him, certain it would suffice.
Time was pressing and he still lacked the strength to inform the counselor. He thought of leaving the kibbutz and going to the main road under the dark of night without saying goodbye to anyone; he would only leave letters for the counselor and Tsippi. He didn’t know how he could look the members in the face; people he had worked with and respected and who had heaped affection on him. His thoughts went round and round until he decided there was no option but to inform the counselor. He feared that were he not to part properly, doors would be shut to him and he couldn’t come back here even for a visit. He also wanted to maintain his honor and not be a coward who leaves in secret.
He went to the kibbutz veterans’ quarters, knocked on the counselor’s door, and was met with a warm welcome. Her husband, a high-ranking police officer who had been the head of the kibbutz in the days before the war, knew how to mix with the inhabitants in the area and win their trust. He spoke Arabic to him and prepared him bitter black coffee, and the counselor served him a slice of cake and squares of chocolate. For a moment it slipped his mind what he had come to tell her.
“I’m happy to inform you that I managed to get you into the Education Institute, and from now on you’ll be a regular student, just like everyone else,” she joyously declared, and his heart sank. The institute had been a dream of his from the moment he’d put foot here, and all the more so from the time he began to be friendly with Tsippi. He closed his eyes and shed a tear and the counselor thought it was from happiness until she heard his choking sobs. She asked if something had happened and he sat opposite her, his voice betraying him. Without looking straight at her, he whispered the decision he had come to in accordance with his father’s demand.
“What right do they have to do this to you? I don’t understand it!” She was shocked and gazed at him with disappointment. Her husband sucked on his extinguished pipe, cautioning her with his eyes not to add to his difficulties.
“I was relying on you, I fought for you to become integrated and study with our children in the institute. Why don’t you rebel?” Her question stuck into his flesh like a white-hot skewer.
“Let him alone. With them, family comes first,” said her husband.
“What could I have done?” he said, and as if she had waited for that sentence, she exploded and told him everything he could have done: many things, many many things, providing he had stood up for himself. His shoulders drooped and he sat wrapped up as if concealing himself. Her voice became louder and he shut his ears with both hands and no longer wiped his tears with them.
“It was important to me that you realize your goals, I wanted to be proud of you…”
“That’s enough,” her husband interrupted, and embraced his shoulder, but his choking sobs didn’t cease.
“Why are you hurting him like this?” he heard her husband from behind when he got up to leave. “Not everyone can be revolutionary pioneers.”
She remained in her armchair, lit a cigarette, deep in thought. His advice had helped her in her work, he always knew what could be demanded of his associates and when to give in to them, but lately it seemed he shied away from firm opinions and solid principles and once again viewed her words as disputable. Not long ago he had already surprised her in a lecture on the second homeland, the Soviet Union, which had realized the communist ideal and founded a just and equal society without classes, without the exploiters and the exploited. Yudkes, the party secretary and a kibbutz member, had elaborated upon the Soviet paradise, and Nuri had interrupted him. Unlike the first two years, he now had doubts and questions, but she nevertheless was very fond of him.
Outside, his tears continued to flow. He was sorry for the counselor who had been like a second mother to him. Even during his first days there, she placed in his locker the best of the shirts and socks she found in the parcel of clothing sent to the youth group by the “Hadassah America” organization. She believed in him and was sure he would be a role model to his friends. She used to invite him to her room for coffee and cake, thereby arousing their envy.
She was certain he had found purpose in his life here, and that the kibbutz had become a substitute for what he and his parents had left behind them in their country, and that he would serve as a bridge between his family and community and the new world. And now, just when he was ripe to make the decision, he had been defeated by his parents. After all it was not only his father who made demands on him, it was also his mother who relentlessly pounded him with tear-laden letters, suffocated him with guilt feelings, and pleaded with him to come back.
How would he find the strength in himself to part with the friends he cherished? He knew it would be difficult to face them, and the parting with the counselor had been hard enough for him. Only on the last night did he find the courage to tell Tsippi about his leaving. He told her in a choked-up voice and heaped endearments, embraces, and kisses on her. When she got over the shock she caressed his face and hugged him tightly; unlike the counselor she didn’t preach or scold, she understood that a force stronger than him was dragging him away. She asked him to write letters to her and to visit. She inquired when he would be leaving and he asked her not to accompany him. She then hung onto his neck and said that there was no point in his asking that – she’ll be coming.
He packed the kitbag, put on a cap, pulled its edges down like eye blinkers, and walked to the bus stop at dawn. He walked with a stoop, the failure and the missed opportunity like a hump on his back. He gave the kibbutz a parting glance and had yearnings for it even before leaving the grounds. At the bend in the road at the foot of the hill, close to the Mansi transit camp, the fields disappeared and he felt a sense of panic and his eyes became blurry: Is this the way this era of his life is ending at this hour? After all, it’s not possible that in one moment the sum of all his dreams is being deserted.
A heavy lump of objection formed in his throat and he promised himself he would return here. He would help the family for a year or two and return on the eve of his army enlistment, and he would write the address of the kibbutz in the army questionnaire so that they would think he was one of its sons, a native-born sabra, and in that way he would be assigned to the paratroopers. 


On the bus, he made his way through the standing passengers to the back door, sat on the steps there, and hugged the kitbag, and closed his eyes. Tears hung on his lashes.


Copyright © by Eli Amir. Published by arrangement with The Israeli Institute for Hebrew Literature.

Eli Amir was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1937, and arrived in Israel with his family in 1950. He studied Middle Eastern history and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Amir has served as adviser on Arab affairs to the Prime Minister and envoy for the Ministry of Absorption to the USA. Since 1984, he has been director-general of the youth immigration department at the Jewish Agency. Amir is well-known in Israel for his involvement with new immigrants and his activity in Palestinian-Jewish relations. His first novel, Scapegoat, has been adapted as a play and a TV series, and a film based on his second novel, Farewell, Baghdad, was released in 2014. Amir has been awarded Youth Immigration's Jubilee Prize (1983), the Jewish Literature Prize (Mexico, 1985), the Ahi Award (1994), Am Oved's Jubilee Prize (1994), the Yigal Alon Prize for Outstanding Service to Society (1997), the Book Publishers Association's Platinum Prize three times (1998; 2009; 2011) and the Prime Minister's Prize (2002). He received an Honorary Doctorate from Tel Aviv University in 2008. He is also winner of the Brenner Prize for Literature 2019 for his novel Bicycle Boy

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