In The Wild (excerpt)
On the Day of Atonement, a young Israeli couple visits a family in an Arab village, where their prejudices are tested and challenged.
My daughter saw it first, and she yelled: A fox! A fox! There! And true, there was a fox, standing on the edge of the footpath pointing his sharp muzzle at the traffic, trying to decide what to do. His red coat glowed in the dark under the streetlight, his foxtail pausing behind him. In a flash I was transported to a distant day, in a distant land, sitting by a fish-breeding pond and listening to the ‘plop’ sounds of jumping fish. Our car stopped at a red light, and the fox turned around and disappeared back into the Fitzroy Gardens. My daughter was very excited. It’s the first time I have seen a fox in the wild, she said, and I wanted to say to her, I know how it feels, because I remember the first time I saw a fox, sitting by the water. But the light turned green and I had to give Sally directions, she nearly missed the city bypass. My daughter told her about the day Banjo, her teacher, took the whole class and the parents to spots a fox on a golf course where he usually played. All evening he kept going, shush, shush, be quiet and the fox will come, but the animal didn’t show up. And now I have seen it, she said, with a sense of achievement. Then the conversation moved on and I never got the chance to talk about my fox.
In any event, I couldn’t possibly have told that story between the city bypass and out home, which is less than five minutes drive. Because I think it’s important to tell about all the events of that distant day, you can’t separate those from the fox bit.
I happened in ’78 when I was young and had a husband named Itzik who drove a red Beatle and had lots of colourful ideas. Of course it was his idea to visit Ahmed in his village smack on the day of Yom Kippur, no more and no less. But what about the stones, I asked. My daughter, for example, who didn’t grow up in Israel, wouldn’t have a clue what I am talking about. So I have to explain that Yom Kippur, Which means the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the country, and whether you are religious or not, in Israel you have to behave like an orthodox Jew on that day, or at least that’s the way things were back in ’78. First you were supposed to fast for twenty-four hours, and if you didn’t fast, you certainly wouldn’t eat in public, or even fry an egg to send the fragrance wafting into the stairwell of your building upsetting all the starving neighbours – that would really get you into their bad books. There was no TV or radio, everything was closed, and driving was the worst sin of all, at least as far as punishment went. The children made sure of it, standing on the side of the road with piles of ammunition. Even the police weren’t spared from the children’s stoning, and what could an Israeli police do to gang of Israeli children? Certainly not shoot them. So the cops avoided the road as much as possible on that day. Even my friend Miki was stoned when he drove his sick kid to the doctors, and the poor guy thought he had covered himself when he stuck the banner TAKING SICK BABY TO HOSPITAL on both sides of the car. I could be that the children thought they were being tricked since the sick kid was laying on the rear sit – there weren’t any child restraints in those days – or maybe there hadn’t been a car on the road for hours, and they were getting impatient. You couldn’t totally blame them, it’s a biblical thing this stoning, and maybe that’s where they got the idea in the first place.
So I said to Itzik, Be’hiat dinak – it means ‘in the name of your faith,’ That’s an expression in Arabic, where most of the Israeli slang come from – why exactly on Yom Kippur? But he replied that we could leave at six o’clock in the morning, before any child opened even one eye. The road will belong to us, he said, and anyway, on other days there is always something more interesting to do, but not on Yom Kippur when one can literally die of boredom, that’s the perfect day to visit Ahmed.
So that’s how it was, we left at six o’clock on Yom Kippur, and true, apart from the few devotees who gave us weird looks on their way to the synagogue, the street of Tel Aviv were ours. The Coast Road was empty too. It felt special, travelling like this, king-of-the-road style, we got in a really good mood, laughing and carrying on. After less than an hour, we turned right to the Lower Galilee. Among the Arab villages there were kibbutzim, and each of them had a water tower and small houses with tiled roofs and fields of cabbages planted in rows. We laughed about it, and how it looked so Zionist, like the picture on the donation tin of the Keren Kayement le’Israel. And from here to there, we got into laughing about Ahmed. I bet there is a wallpaper of a tropical beach in his house, said Itzik. No, not a tropical beach, I said, it’s rainforest, his favourite. I learnt about his rainforest wallpaper preference when I tried to teach him how to do a Spanish finish on our loungeroom walls with white cement-mix. He had started spraying the cement and I showed him how to dip a hessian rag in the cement, then rub it on the wall in circular movements. I think it was frustrating for him to be shown how to do his job by a woman. But he spread the cement too evenly, so I had to say, No good, this finish is only for outside, not inside. Why don’t you put a wallpaper in here? What wallpaper, I said, and he replied, A beautiful one, with a picture of a forest. Ahmed, I said to him, this is a Jewish home, not an Arab home. Ahmed sort of smiled, but I saw a vein throbbing on his forehead. Itzik had hired all the tradesmen at The Slave Market in Jaffa. Most of them came from Gaza or The West Bank, they stood there at dawn with their plastic buckets full of tools, hoping to get a day or two of work. On the morning Itzik picked him, Ahmed was the only one who came from an Israeli village, and actually owned a utility. He was more confident than the others, and after a week of working for us he even invited us to visit him in his village.
First published in 2004, Heat #8, New Series