Musa Goes to Jerusalem
- By Josh Saxe
Ari unplugged the vacuum cleaner and scrutinized the ornate reception hall. The ocean of beige carpet, patterned and inlaid with gold and silver, appeared spotless, and the waxed hardwood floor next to the bar mirrored copper chandeliers that hung high overhead. Long ranks of chairs rested snugly against tables, and Ari could taste the antiseptic odor of Fast Clean in the recycled air. She smiled: she had finished her first shift as a janitor and although she made poverty wages and barely spoke Hebrew, she had found a job in Israel. Soon, if she lived frugally, monthly remittances would be flowing back to her relatives in the Ukraine and maybe she could pay for piano lessons for her daughter.
She had clocked out with everyone else, changed and stepped onto the West Jerusalem street, when an explosion saturated with blood and shrapnel slammed her, bursting her ear drums and ripping into her body. Dizzy images started and stopped, a silver tour bus reeling and impaling a dumbstruck group of pedestrians, cars hanging in the air and crashing onto their backs. An awkward Sri Lankan co-worker she had just met cradling bloody intestines in his arms, sobbing like a child amidst glass and debris. A Jewish schoolgirl snorting in an effort to breathe with her nose blown off. Coming to, Ari realized skin had peeled out from her throat, shards of metal had pierced her chest, and her right arm hung by shredded cords of flesh and fabric from her shoulder, she stood tattered and isolated on the sidewalk, hyperventilating: who would pick up her daughter while she bled to death? The Palestinian resistance had struck; ambulances, officials, politicians and journalists would arrive soon and for better or worse scores of missiles would barrel into the West Bank and Gaza Strip thundering vengeance. But to back up a month or so:
A gagging silence smothered the Palestinian city of Bethlehem that Monday night, enforced by adolescent Israeli soldiers manning hulking tanks and razor-wire checkpoints. It was a tense silence; Palestinians dreaming of street executions, broken families and house demolitions, gun butts, Friday market strip searches, murdered siblings; although many still dreamt cautiously of the stuff of everyday life. Musa dreamt of his six year old sister, and when he awoke at 4AM to the familiar smell of shit dripping from his water-warped ceiling into a plastic bucket, his heart pumping, he felt his hand clutching hers. She lay heaving and groaning next to him- she could not live more than a few days and push or shove they would have to get her to the hospital. A resolve to make this happen hardened within him, he had made his decision in his sleep, it felt irreversible.
He went to the living room where his parents slept on a fold out cot under the gushing moonlight and hazy street glow.
She turned in perturbed sleep, lips drawn tight, eyelids pressed. Azzah was a strong woman in her 40's, a local leader, and if circumstances had stretched her to near breaking point recently only her family could tell. Her husband Ali, a square-framed gardener, groaned.
"I think A'dab will die if we don't get her to the hospital in Hebron. It's like she's living in hell, it doesn't let up, come take a look."
Only a month ago A'dab had played with Musa like a happy-go-lucky kid; she would steal his shoes and go barreling barefoot down their unpaved street, drunk with glee, oblivious to the shards of Molotov's, window glass and shrapnel that might cut her, not letting up until Musa put on sandals and ran along and scooped her up like a sack of potatoes; she would giggle and wave to neighbors and street vendors as he carried her and then try it again. Then she had been struck in the abdomen by a few tiny shards of Israeli shrapnel while playing in the street, the wound had become infected, and now mother and brother stood over her in the shadows, inhaling the smell of shit, wincing at her quivers. The neighborhood doctor had been unable to help her, he was old and had gone half crazy since he had lost his son to an Israeli bullet in 1987, now people could only get vague advice and questionable prescriptions from him. Ali knew some medicine from his time in the Egyptian army but it amounted to administering penicillin injections. Bethlehem's hospital had 65 threadbare beds but with the ongoing siege was full with a huge waiting list of the wounded and dying. Older neighborhood women had prayed for A'dab, rumors had even circulated that the infection had taken because Azzah was a Christian, and Azzah had wondered if Christ's birthplace going up in flames had anything to do with her daughter's illness. But nothing had cured the child, and now the fact of her disease lay before them like an ugly, inexorable question, her skin waxed white and frigid as notebook paper, lips icy purple, cracked and dry, scabbed in blood and pus.
"Yeah Musa, let's get her to the hospital." Azzah had caught Musa's contagious resolve, she faced him with a characteristic conviction that sometimes passed for foolish overzealousness. The hospital lay three checkpoints and 28 kilometers away in the U.N. section of Hebron; getting there would mean traversing a war zone, weaving through obscure passages in ancient, twisted brick alleys, smooth-talking at checkpoints and possible bribery at the hospital. "Ali!" Azzah shouted into the living room. He awoke confusedly, his furry face rolling in their direction, and soon the family agreed to set out. They awoke their neighbors -old friends of theirs, who lent them their beat up '84 Ford knowing they would likely not see it again; it had a quarter tank of gas and they jumped it and left it running because the battery was dead. Azzah packed some apricots, old pita and yogurt and Ali carried A'dab down three flights of dusty stairs, wrapping her like a cherub-faced mummy in a blanket and resting her gently in the back seat, kissing her forehead, her hair puddling on the ripped grey cushion.
Word spread of the family's departure and soon the entire block was in motion, parents and children emerging with blinking and disbelieving eyes in doorways and windows, wishing the family luck under the stars, the ancient Bethlehem skyline fluttering, the cross atop the Church of Nativity twinkling in the distance. Many gave them money to help bribe soldiers, all gave vicarious words of encouragement. Musa saw Mahmud, a younger friend involved in the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), and while their friendship had been strained recently he donated all his pocket money and waved them on as they drove towards the highway in the indigo of early morning.
Musa cradled A'dab on his lap in the back seat, braiding her sweaty black hair, rubbing her eyelids, and as she groaned and sputtered he watched Bethlehem roll by; a city of familiar places and symbols whose language seemed strangely unintelligible now. He reached forward to massage his Dad's knotted shoulders from the back seat, kneading, clenching and releasing.
They drove in a perimeter around the Church of Nativity, even while most of the the city still slept they could hear the gunshots, battle-cries and mortars singing out. Christ's birthplace reduced to a battlefield by the occupiers, Musa's mother had been muttering to herself as she scrubbed dishes or hung laundry as of late. On the outskirts of Bethlehem, driving carefully across a bumpy road, the family watched the red morning light soak into grassy foothills and through rows of olive trees, igniting the tips of TV antennas and steeples in the city. Musa cradled A'dab in the air to cushion her.
"I'll do the talking, you guys sit tight," said Ali as they rolled up to the first checkpoint after half an hour of driving; the barbed wire, trailer office and soldiers stood as silhouettes before the low hanging sun. Ali, a deeply gentle man, a warm and attentive father, usually deferred to the orders and proclamations of the Israeli occupation army as any Palestinian gardener had to to protect himself and his family. But he had also fought at the crossing for Sadat and could wax tough with military poise if forced to, his memories of that single victory over Israel fortifying his morale while the Israelis stuck blow after unreturned blow against Palestine. They stopped a careful 10 feet from the wire perimeter, a heavy soldier sauntering up to Ali's window.
"Get out of the car." Here came the strip search. "You too," indicating A'dab, Musa and Azzah. They all got out, A'dab's hot chin pressed against Musa's shoulder.
"My daughter is very sick and-" Ali started in cautious Hebrew, "Shut up!" shouted the soldier, "strip to your underwear and lie down face first!"
If humiliating, the procedure was at least familiar, and there was no choice but to obey. Ali stripped in front of his family and laid on the dirt amidst old candy wrappers and bottle-caps, a hard teenage boot on his neck as a second soldier searched his clothes. Next the rest of them peeled off their layers and the soldier unrolled A'dab from her blanket revealing a white cloth stained in blood and discharge and a pale quivering child. She awoke, panting and hysterical, mouthing incoherent words that only Musa could ever make out, he recognized something about water; then she was rolled back up and returned to the back seat. Finally the soldiers told the three others to dress and they interrogated Ali.
"Why are you leaving Bethlehem?"
"We are taking A'dab, my daughter, to the hospital in Hebron."
"Why don't you go to the hospital here... What's it called again?"
"The hospital is backed up because of the fighting."
"Is this your car?"
"No, it belongs to a friend."
"Benjamin!" the soldier called, "turn off the car and search it!"
"Sir," objected Ali, "the car's battery won't hold a charge, if you turn it off we won't be able to start it, my daughter is on the verge of death."
The soldier's military poise waxed transparent in hesitation, and a glint in the corner of a brown eye reflected a restrained sympathy. But then stories of checkpoint car bombers flashed before him, Palestinians socialized for terror tricking foolish soldiers to their deaths; these Palestinians would even blow up their families if it might take out a few soldiers. "Go on and turn it off!" he repeated, ignoring Ali. A green truck brinked the horizon. The other soldier obeyed, patting down the doors, floor and ceiling for bombs, searching under the hood and throughout the trunk. "Clean," he said. The soldiers tried not to stare at A'dab.
"Ok, free to pass," said the first soldier, a thick, boyish Eastern European whose face had resolved as the family's eyes adjusted to the glare. "Curfew is at five, after that you can't come back through."
Musa got A'dab, she needed water. His parents waited by the car for someone to give them a jump and he walked past the checkpoint into the emaciated shantytown on the other side, a refugee colony of some of the thousands who'd lost their homes to the Israeli occupiers and settlers. Most of the residents lived in makeshift dwellings without plumbing but he succeeded in procuring some bottled water for A'dab from people out doing morning chores- a certain mutual generosity had come out of the intifada, even while 80% of Palestinians were unemployed and living on a few dollars a day. When he returned to the car a Palestinian truck driver was giving them a jump and they were set to continue, Ali driving, Azzah shotgun and Musa in the back with A'dab; in celebration at having passed the first checkpoint they each took an apricot from the bag Azzah had packed.
As they proceeded A'dab's condition worsened due to the bumps that sent traumatic jolts through her tiny body. A well-paved Jewish-only road ran parallel to the highway, but Ali thought crossing over would be too risky. His hand rested hotly intertwined with Azzah's as it had whenever they had driven anywhere for the last 20 years, he removed it only to switch gears. A'dab waxed in and out of consciousness, oscillating between shrill grating and a passive euphoria; they suspected she needed water but drinking pained her swollen throat and she could not swallow more than a capful at once. They found it best to ignore her misery and focus on getting to Hebron; their gas had sunken to about a tenth of a tank.
Musa kept quiet when he saw the second checkpoint on the horizon, but apparently Ali saw it too and said, "I'll try to do the talking again, just sit tight guys." Musa's Dad had always been diffident, good with neighborhood kids whose street soccer league he "coached"; after practice he'd often bring them up to their rickety roof that overlooked the Bethlehem skyline and twirl them around until he set them down dizzy as drunks, laughing; they would tangle themselves up in the clotheslines; A'dab loved to play with Ali's mustache while he sat reading the newspaper at night by their oil lamp, when he kissed her forehead he would rub it around so it tickled her and made her giggle. Now, approaching the checkpoint, this mask of amiability was stripped off by a inexorable freight-train of fear- this happened to him sometimes, he never knew why the fear struck when it did, he had faced battle and risked his life many times while keeping his cool. The car stopped a careful 10 feet from the checkpoint, this one on the outskirts of Hebron.
Benjamin, the highest ranking soldier at the checkpoint, had been cooped up in the West Bank for 6 months with barely 2 weeks leave while a potential career as a rock-star in a popular band passed him by back in Israel. To top it off, the night before he had had a fight with his girlfriend over the phone who had been flitting about the Tel Aviv club scene with college friends of his notorious for their records' of sexual conquest. With violence in Hebron at record levels, he had no intention of letting Arabs off the hook if they gave him shit, in his mind they had fucked with his race too much to deserve the benefit of the doubt.
"GET OUT OF THE CAR!" he belted at Ali's family in Hebrew.
Again the family stripped, again a studded army boot pinned Ali's throat to dirt so that he inhaled thick dust, again A'dab was unrolled, but this time the car wasn't searched or turned off. "Go back the way you came," said Benjamin and they dressed and returned to the car.
Ali noticed in panic that two of this officer's subordinates at the checkpoint had their guns trained on him and his family in the car, the old city of Hebron rising behind them. There had been no interrogation. Street fighting or something had broken out in Hebron, some sort of lock-down to be sure, you never knew exactly why, the Israeli's were occupiers after all, a foreign force who decided what happened, when and how.
"Sir," started Ali from the driver's seat, slowly getting out the car and walking towards the Benjamin, his steps were slow and timid, he was dressed in his dirty work pants and a cheap T-shirt, clothes he had grabbed randomly that morning, his legs shook, but this wasn't his normal kind of fear, it was a fear that dammed building frustration. "STOP! Put your hands in the air, turn around, and get back in your rickety car Arab" shouted Benjamin, who had lifted his gun and trained it on Ali's head. Why didn't these Arabs just know how to follow orders, why did they always have to give him shit?
Ali hesitated. He didn't move, or speak, or look at his family although Azzah felt and breathed with him at that moment. The soldiers could shoot Ali without pretext and on a whim, but something had changed in him and he refused to back down. He felt they would understand his story if they would only listen. He stood put in much the same foolish way that he had when he had proposed to Azzah on a grassy knoll on his grandfather's farm that he a Muslim and she a Christian should be married regardless of the consequences, pressing the issue until she had recklessly accepted, their inexplicable, teary-eyed laughter bursting forth like water from floodgates, a decision that had been reasoned and deliberated over for months finally made without the recourse to rationality. Now Ali stood put in the dirt. Then, opening his mouth to reason his resolve cracked and there was nothing left to do but scream at Benjamin, the officer, as he would any misguided Palestinian adolescent who should have known better: "MY DAUGHTER WILL DIE IF YOU FOOLS DON'T LET-"
Three shots rang out, exploding Ali's head and splattering the contents of his skull across the windshield where Azzah sat, crumpling his body onto the ground. It seemed undramatic under the turquoise morning sky full of frozen white clouds. Three more shots shattered the windshield killing Azzah where she sat, missing Musa and A'dab who lay in the backseat quaking against each other. To Musa reality blurred and he escaped without thinking about it, he came to while crouching in the driver's seat below the steering wheel, looking up at the blue sky and holding down the gas pedal with a clenched and sweaty palm, bucking and zooming over pot-holes back in the direction of Bethlehem. Azzah's corpse flopped onto the driver's seat, her slender cheek pressed against his, covering him in blood, covering his eyes with her cool hair, he pushed the corpse back to the passenger's seat, sitting upright to hold it there and then ducking again when he floored it through the Bethlehem checkpoint, gunshots ringing overhead and popping the back tires. A'dab bounced around in the back seat as they drove, and when they stopped in their neighborhood she lay cold, white, her deep baby eyes fixed clenchingly on his, she was dead.
Moving forward a month forward now: Blue eyes flashing against the moonlight and loglo haze, Musa crept onto his family's roof and jumped with adolescent prowess into the dirt alley, watching the flaming yellow skyline. Earlier he had spoken into a video camera in a friend's basement cluttered with junk and coca-cola bottles: "I martyr myself because society has left me no other option. I cannot hope to continue my education and if I could I could not hope to benefit society through my work, there are no socially beneficial jobs open to our people. My family has been killed by the occupiers but Allah has left me to avenge their deaths." He hadn't really had that much to say and didn't care so much for the Hamas ritual of recording a testimonial before a martyrdom; he wasn't even sure if he believed in the Islamic God or if that was the same as the Christian God. But now he carried his hard metal suicide belt and crept through the twisted alleys of his home town, alleys through which the Virgin Mary had walked, Roman legions had sought Eastern conquest, British troops sought a new colonial protectorate and now the Zionist state fought to expel the Palestinian people. 10 miles from here he would meet a militant who would show him a way through the green line security fence that shut the occupied West Bank off from Israel proper.
"The route the organization uses is through this small sewage pipe, be prepared for the stench," whispered the figure whom Musa met at the meeting spot a few miles from the green line. All but the person's eyes were shrouded in a black and white Fateh scarf, his voice amplified by the silence. Musa recognized it as Mahmud, the kid from his street. He maintained the formality of pretending not to know him. "May peace be upon you," Mahmud said after a few hours silent walking as he pointed out the moonlit silver tunnel amidst an otherwise barren landscape, a few Israeli radio tower lights winking in the distance. "Who would have known you would become a martyr," he added awkwardly.
Crawling through the sewage tunnel was a timeless, lonely act, a submersive and euphoric torture in which visions of A'dab running and giggling recklessly and naked through their house, black hair streaming, rested just beyond arms reach, in which his living figure sipped hot coffee while playing chess with his father, in which his mother set steaming dinner out and sat waiting for him to return from university. The important thing now was to push the visions out of sight, to stay focused on hitting Israel, not to go completely crazy. Acrid sewage fumes reached their rotten tendrils through his lips and then throat and finally tied knots in his small intestines, clenching and ripping puddles of half-formed shit out of his mouth until all he could manage was to dry heave as he barreled like an animal through what he felt to be hell. "I'll bet the Israeli's see it as a victory that they have reduced us to creatures who blow themselves up in their streets," Musa's mother used to say sitting at their dusty coffee table reading the paper at night. Musa wondered if his mother would make that argument now.
Exiting the tunnel Musa stood in Israeli territory, his vision warmed by the burning pre-dawn hues rising from the long silver line where desert met sky, the distance beckoning him with the mirage of dream-like alternatives. Flee Palestine. Start a new life in Jordan with a second cousin. He'd never had a girlfriend, were girls really less conservative in Amman? Go to America, New York, live in a skyscraper. Sell the suicide-belt and buy a bus ticket. But he changed out of his feces-soaked clothes, leaving them, putting on clothes from a plastic bag, putting the suicide belt on, and beginning his final 5 mile hike to a rickety bus station.
The Palestinians on the bus didn't look at him, they were in work mode, living and dealing with everything collectively and yet by themselves, staring forward in discipline, lunch boxes in hand, janitors, gardeners, dishwashers, servants for the Israeli's. Musa felt separated. Soon he would arrive in Jerusalem, for the first time in years and the last time in his life, and he would take his revenge for the death of his family. The concept of revenge remained lucid in his mind, but not the feeling, which had receded and which he had almost forgotten. Its significance was as an outlet, the only choice that seemed immediately practical, and he didn't have the energy to try to climb out of this hole. Soon I'll be in Jerusalem, soon I'll be in Jerusalem, he kept thinking to himself. The sunrise that morning grew spectacular, hot forked rivers of gold swimming the length of the sky, shimmering tangerines, aquamarines, and blood-red hues soaking into hulking clouds that rose high overhead like mountains.
Josh Saxe is Josh Saxe, 21,
lives in Los Angeles and is pursuing a M.A. in History
at Cal State Los Angeles. He's a member of the Los
Angeles Strikers Solidarity Organization. His email
address is email@example.com.