The following is an excerpt from To the End of the Land by David Grossman, to be published by Knopf in September. In this passage a mother is accompanying her son, who is returning to duty in the Israeli army.
The convoy twists along, a stammering band of civilian cars, jeeps, military ambulances, tanks, and huge bulldozers on the backs of transporters. Her taxi driver is quiet and gloomy. His hand rests on the Mercedes’s gearshift and his thick neck does not move. For several long minutes he has looked neither at her nor at Ofer.
As soon as Ofer sat down in the cab, he let out an angry breath and flashed a look that said: Not the smartest idea, Mom, asking this particular driver to come along on a trip like this. Only then did she realize what she’d done. At seven that morning she had called Sami and asked him to come pick her up for a long drive to the Gilboa region. Now she remembers that for some reason she hadn’t given him any details or explained the purpose of the trip, the way she usually did. Sami had asked when she wanted him, and she’d hesitated and then said, “Come at three.” “Ora,” he’d said, “maybe we should leave earlier, ‘cause traffic will be a mess.” That was his only acknowledgment of the day’s madness, but even then she didn’t get it and just said there was no way she could leave before three.
She wanted to spend these hours with Ofer, and although Ofer agreed, she could tell how much effort his concession took. Seven or eight hours were all that was left of the abruptly canceled weeklong trip she’d planned for the two of them—a trip meant to celebrate his discharge, now moot, because he had decided to go back on duty—and she realizes she hadn’t even told Sami on the phone that Ofer was part of the ride. Had she told him, he might have asked her to let him off today, just this one time, or he might have sent one of the Jewish drivers who worked for him—“my Jewish sector,” he called them. But when she’d called him she’d been in a state of complete frenzy, and it simply had not occurred to her—the unease slowly rises in her chest—that for this sort of drive, on a day like this, it was better not to call an Arab driver.
Even if he is an Arab from here, one of ours, Ilan prods at her brain as she tries to justify her own behavior. Even if it’s Sami, who’s almost one of the family, who’s been driving everyone—the people who work for Ilan, her estranged husband, and the whole family—for more than twenty years. They are his main livelihood, his regular monthly income, and he, in return, is obliged to be at their service around the clock, whenever they need him. They have been to his home in Abu Ghosh for family celebrations, they know his wife, Inaam, and they helped out with connections and money when his two older sons wanted to emigrate to Argentina. They’ve racked up hundreds of driving hours together, and she cannot recall his ever being this silent. With him, every drive is a stand-up show. He’s witty and sly, a political dodger who shoots in all directions with decoys and double-edged swords, and besides, she cannot imagine calling another driver.
Driving herself is out of the question for the next year: she’s had three accidents and six moving violations in the past twelve months, an excessive crop even by her standards, and the loathsome judge who revoked her license had hissed that he was doing her a favor and that she really owed him her life. It would have all been so easy if she herself were driving Ofer. At least she’d have had another ninety minutes alone with him, and maybe she’d even have tempted him to stop on the way—there are some good restaurants in Wadi Ara. After all, one hour more, one hour less, what’s the rush? Why are you in such a hurry? Tell me, what is it that’s waiting for you there?
A trip alone with him will not happen anytime soon, nor alone with herself, and she has to get used to this constraint. She has to let it go, stop grieving every day for her robbed independence. She should be happy that at least she has Sami, who kept driving her even after the separation from Ilan. She hadn’t been capable of thinking about those kinds of details at the time, but Ilan had put his foot down. Sami was an explicit clause in their separation agreement, and he himself said he was divvied up between them like the furniture and the rugs and the silverware. “Us Arabs,” he would laugh, revealing a mouth full of huge teeth, “ever since the partition plan we’re used to you dividing us up.” The memory of his joke makes her cringe with the shame of what has happened today, of having somehow, in the general commotion, completely erased that part of him, his Arabness.
Since she saw Ofer this morning with the phone in his hand and the guilty look on his face, someone had come along and gently but firmly taken the management of her own affairs out of her hands. She had been dismissed, relegated to observer status, a gawking witness. Her thoughts were no more than flashes of emotion. She hovered through the rooms of the house with angular, truncated motions. Later they went to the mall to buy clothes and candy and CDs—there was a new Johnny Cash collection out—and all morning she walked beside him in a daze and giggled like a girl at everything he said. She devoured him with gaping wide looks, stocking up unabashedly for the endless years of hunger to come—of course they would come. From the moment he told her he was returning to join his unit, she had no doubt. Three times that morning she excused herself and went to the public restrooms, where she had diarrhea. Ofer laughed: “What’s up with you? What did you eat?” She stared at him and smiled feebly, engraving in her mind the sound of his laughter, the slight tilt of his head when he laughed….
She kept checking the time. On her watch, on his, on the big clocks in the mall, on the television screens in appliance stores. Time was behaving strangely, sometimes flying, at other times crawling or coming to a complete standstill. It seemed to her that it might not even require much effort to roll it back, not too far, just thirty minutes or an hour at a time would be fine. The big things—time, destiny, God—could sometimes be worn down by petty haggling. They drove downtown to have lunch at a restaurant in the shuk, where they ordered lots of dishes although neither of them had an appetite.
He tried to amuse her with stories from the checkpoint near Tapuach, where he’d served for seven months, and it was the first time she discovered that he would scan the thousands of Palestinians who passed through the checkpoint with a simple metal detector, like the one they used when you walked into the mall. “That’s all you had?” she whispered. He laughed: “What did you think I had?” “I didn’t think,” she said. He asked, “But didn’t you wonder how it’s done there?” There was a note of childish disappointment in his voice. She said, “But you never told me about it.” He presented a profile that said, You know exactly why, but before she could say anything he reached out and covered her hand with his—his broad, tanned, rough hand—and that simple rare touch almost stunned her and she fell silent.
Ofer seemed to want, at the very last minute, to fill in what he had left out, and he told her hurriedly about the pillbox he’d lived in for four months, facing the northern neighborhood of Jenin, and how every morning at five he used to open the gate in the fence around the pillbox and make sure the Palestinians hadn’t booby-trapped it overnight. “You just walked over there like that, alone?” she asked. “Usually someone from the pillbox would cover me—I mean, if anyone was awake.” She wanted to ask more but her throat was dry, and Ofer shrugged and said in an elderly Palestinian man’s voice, “Kulo min Allah“—it’s all from God. She whispered, “I didn’t know,” and he laughed without any bitterness, as if he had understood that she could not be expected to know, and he told her about the kasbah in Nablus, which he said was the most interesting of all the kasbahs, the most ancient. “There are houses there from the Roman era and houses built like bridges over alleyways, and underneath the whole city there’s an aqueduct that goes from east to west, with canals and tunnels running in all directions, and the fugitives live there because they know we’ll never dare follow them down.”
He spoke enthusiastically, as if he were telling her about a new video game, and she kept fighting the urge to grasp his head with both hands and look into his eyes so that she could see his soul, which had been slipping away from her for years—although with warmth, with a grin and a wink, as if they were playing a casual game of tag to amuse themselves—but she did not have the courage to do it. Nor could she say to him simply, in a voice that was not drenched in complaint or accusation, “Hey, Ofer, why aren’t we friends like we used to be? So what if I’m your mom?”
At three o’clock, Sami would come to take her and Ofer to the meeting point. Three o’clock was the farthest point in her thoughts. She did not have the strength to imagine what would occur after that, and this was further proof of her frequent claim that she had no imagination. But that was no longer true, either. That, too, had changed. Recently she’d been flooded by imaginings—she had imagination-poisoning. Sami would make the drive easier for her, especially the way back, which would undoubtedly be far more difficult than the way there. They had a domestic routine, she and Sami. She liked to listen to him talk about his family, about the complex relationships between the different clans in Abu Ghosh, about the intrigues in the town council, and about the woman he had loved when he was fifteen, and perhaps had never stopped loving even after he was married off to Inaam, his cousin.
At least once a week, by total coincidence, he claimed, he would see her in the village. She was a teacher, and there were years when she taught his daughters, and then she became a superintendent. She must have been a strong, opinionated woman, judging by his stories, and he always drew the conversation out so that Ora would ask about her. Then he would report her news with a sort of reverence: another child, her first grandson, a prize from the Ministry of Education, her husband’s death in a work accident. With touching detail he quoted their chance conversations in the mini-market, the bakery, or on the rare occasions when he drove her in his cab. Ora guessed that she was the only person he allowed himself to talk to about this woman, perhaps because he trusted her never to ask him the one question whose answer was obvious.
Sami was a seasoned man, a quick thinker, and his life wisdom was augmented by his business acumen, which had produced, among other things, his own small fleet of taxis. When he was twelve he had a goat, and every year she birthed two kids. And a year-old kid in good health, he once explained to Ora, can sell for a thousand shekels. “When the kid would get to a thousand shekels, I would sell it and put the money away. I put away, and I put away, until I had eight thousand shekels. At seventeen I got my license and bought a Fiat 127, an old model but it worked. I bought it from my teacher, and I was the one boy in the village who came to school with wheels. Afternoons, I did private drives, errands, take this, bring that, go, fetch, and that way, slowly-slowly…”
Last year, amid the great upheavals in her life, a friend of Ora’s found her a part-time temporary job working for a new museum being built in Nevada, which for some reason was interested in the material culture of Israel. Ora liked the unusual work that had fallen into her lap to distract her from herself a little, and she preferred not to delve too deeply into the museum’s ulterior motives or what had led its planners to invest a fortune in the construction of a model of Israel in, of all places, the Nevada desert. She was on the team in charge of the Fifties and knew there were another few “gatherers” like her on various other teams. She never met any of them. Every two or three weeks she set off with Sami on delightful buying trips around the country, and out of some vague intuition she avoided discussing the museum and its intentions with him. Sami never asked, and she wondered what he imagined and how he described these trips to Inaam.
The two of them spent days roaming the country together. They bought a collection of stainless-steel basins from a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, an antique milking machine from a moshav in the north, a shiny like-new icebox in a Jerusalem neighhorhood, and of course the trivial, forgotten items whose discovery gave her an almost physical joy: an eighth of a bar of Tasbin soap, a tube of Velveta hand cream, a package of sanitary napkins, textured rubber “thimbles” that Egged bus drivers once used, a collection of wildflowers dried between the pages of a notebook, and vast quantities of textbooks and popular books—one of her tasks was to reconstruct a typical kibbutz household library from the Fifties. Time after time she watched as Sami Jubran’s warm, earthy charm encircled everyone he met. The elderly kibbutzniks were positive that he was a former kibbutz member (which was true, he told her jokingly: “Half of Kiryat Anavim’s lands belong to my family”).
In Jerusalem, at a local backgammon club, a few men pounced on him, convinced he had grown up with them in the Nachlaot neighborhood, and even claimed to remember him climbing pine trees to watch Hapoel soccer games in the old stadium. And a vibrant Tel Aviv widow with bronzed skin and jangling bracelets determined that he was without a doubt from the Kerem: even though he was a little fat for a Yemenite, it was obvious that he was “with roots,” she said when she called Ora the next day for no reason. “And very charmant,” she added, “the kind of guy who definitely fought in the Etzel. And by the way, do you think he’s available for a moving job?” Ora saw the way people agreed, for Sami, to part with beloved possessions, because they felt that these objects, which their children belittled and would undoubtedly get rid of as soon as the old people passed on, if given to him, would in some sense stay in the family.
And on every trip, even a ten-minute drive, they always got into politics, keenly confabbing over the latest developments. Ora had completely cut herself off from the “situation”—I’ve paid my price, she asserted with a narrow, distancing smile—but she found herself drawn into these talks with Sami over and over again. It was not his arguments or his reasonings that pulled her in, because she’d heard them all before, from him and from others, and she didn’t believe anyone had a single unused claim left in this eternal debate. “Who could possibly come up with a new, decisive argument that hasn’t yet been heard?” she asked with a sigh when anyone else tried to take it up with her. But when she and Sami discussed the situation, they argued with little jabs and cautious smiles—and with him, curiously, she frequently veered much further to the right than she intended, further than her real opinions, while with Ilan and the boys she was always, as they said, on the delusional left, and she herself couldn’t say exactly what she was and where she stood, “and anyway,” she would say with a charming shrug, “only when it’s all over, the whole story, will we really know who was right and who was wrong, isn’t that so?”
Yet still, when Sami used his Arabesque Hebrew to undermine the long-winded, indignant, greedy pretenses of both Jews and Arabs, when he skewered the leaders of both peoples on a sharp Arab saying that often aroused from the depths of her memory the equivalent idiom in her father’s Yiddish, she sometimes experienced a subtle latency, as if in the course of talking with him she suddenly discovered that the end, the end of the whole big story, must be good, and good it would be, if only because the clumsy, round-faced man sitting beside her was able to preserve within his fleshy thickness a flame of delicate irony, and mainly because he still managed to be himself within all this. There were also times when it occurred to her that she was learning from him what she would need to know, one day, if—or when—the situation in Israel was reversed, God forbid, and she found herself in his position, and he in hers. That was possible, after all. It was always lurking behind the door. And perhaps, she realized, he thought about that too—perhaps she was teaching him something by still being herself in all this.
Because of all these reasons it was very important that she observe him as much as she could, to learn how he had been able to avoid becoming embittered all these years. As far as she could tell be was not even suppressing a silent yet murderous hatred deep inside, as Ilan had always claimed. She was astonished to see—and wished she could learn from him—how he managed to avoid attributing the daily humiliations, large and small, to some personal defect of his own, as she would undoubtedly do with great fervor were she, God forbid, in his position—and as she in fact had been doing, truth be told, quite a bit during this lousy year. Somehow, within all the chaos, all the mess, he remained a free person, which she herself only rarely managed to be.
Now it grows and swells and threatens to burst: her stupidity, her failure in the principled and complicated matter of being a gentle human being in this place, in these times. Not just being gentle, or ladylike—there are some words she still hears only in her mother’s voice—merely because you are incapable of being anything else by nature, but being intentionally and defiantly gentle, being a gentle person who dives headfirst into the local vat of acid. Sami was a truly gentle man, even if it was hard to tell from his size and his heaviness and his thick features. Even Ilan had to admit it, although grudgingly and always with a note of suspicion: “Gentle he may be, but just wait till he gets his chance. Then you’ll get to see some gentleness à la Allah.”
But in all the years she’d known him, and as much as she observed him—and she constantly did—she was unable to lose the childish curiosity about some congenital handicap she sensed in him, in his condition, in his split or double existence here; she was absolutely certain that he had never failed. In gentleness, he had never failed.
He once drove her and the kids to the airport to meet Ilan, who was coming back from a trip. The cops at the airport checkpoint took him away for half an hour, while Ora and the boys waited in the taxi. They were little then, Adam was six and Ofer around three, and it was the first time they discovered that their Sami was Arab. When he came back, pale and sweaty, he refused to tell them what had happened. All he said was, “They kept saying I was a shitty Arab, and I said, ‘You may shit all over me, but that doesn’t make me shitty.’”
She never forgot that sentence, and lately she recited it to herself ever more firmly, like medication to strengthen her heart whenever they shat all over her, everyone, like the pair of obsequious managers at the clinic where she’d worked until recently, and a few friends who had more or less turned their backs on her after the separation and stuck with Ilan (but I would too, she thinks to herself; if I only could, I would choose Ilan and not get stuck with me), and she could add to the list the son-of-a-bitch judge who took away her freedom of movement, and in fact she could include her kids among those who shat on her, especially Adam, not Ofer, hardly at all, she wasn’t sure, she just wasn’t sure anymore, and Ilan too, of course, the master of shitters, who once, about thirty years ago, had sworn that his purpose in life was to protect the corners of her mouth so that they would always curl upward. Ha. She absentmindedly touches the edge of her upper lip, the one that droops slightly down, the empty one—even her mouth had eventually joined with those who shat on her.
Through all the trips with Sami, all the little unexpected challenges, the suspicious looks people sometimes gave him, the casual comments that were so horrifyingly rude coming from the warmest, most enlightened people they met, through all the tests with identical questions that daily life gave them together, a quiet, mutual confidence had grown between them, the kind you feel with your partner in a complicated dance or a dangerous acrobatic trick: you know he won’t disappoint you, you know his hand won’t shake, and he knows you’ll never ask him for something you are absolutely forbidden to ask for.
And today she had failed, and she was causing him to fail, and by the time she realized this it was too late, when he hurried to open the taxi door for her, as he always did, and suddenly saw Ofer coming down the steps from the house wearing his uniform and carrying his rifle, and this was the Ofer he’d known since he was born. He had driven her and Ilan home from the hospital with Ofer because Ilan was afraid to drive that day, said his hands would shake, and on the way from the hospital Sami told them that for him life really only started when Yousra was born, his oldest daughter. At the time he had just the one; later there were two boys and another two girls—“I’ve got five demographic problems,” he would cheerfully tell anyone who asked—and Ora noticed on that trip that he drove very carefully, smoothly rounding the car over potholes and bumps so as not to disturb Ofer as he slept in her arms.
During the years that followed, when the boys went to school downtown, Sami drove the carpool she organized for five kids from Tzur Hadassah and Ein Karem. And whenever Ilan was overseas, Sami helped out with chauffeuring, and there were years when he was an integral part of the family’s daily routine. Later, when Adam was older but didn’t have his license yet, Sami would drive him home from his Friday-night outings downtown, and then Ofer joined in, and the two boys would phone from a pub and Sami would come from Abu Ghosh, at any hour, denying he’d been asleep, even at three AM, and he would wait for Adam and Ofer and their friends outside the pub until they finally remembered to come out, and he probably listened to their conversations, their army stories—who knows what he heard all those times? she suddenly thinks with horror, and what they said as they kidded around and told alcohol-fueled jokes about their checkpoint experiences—and then he would shuttle the boys to their homes in the various neighborhoods. Now he would shuttle Ofer to an operation in Jenin or Nablus, she thought, and she had forgotten to mention this one little detail when she phoned him, but Sami was quick. Her heart sank when she saw his face darken in a deadly coupling of anger and defeat. He got it all in the blink of an eye: he saw Ofer coming down the steps with his uniform and rifle, and realized that Ora was asking him to add his modest contribution to the Israeli war effort.
An ashen current had spread slowly through the dark skin of his face, the soot from a fire that leaped up and died down inside him in an instant. He stood without moving and looked as though someone had slapped him, as though she herself had come over and stood facing him, smiled broadly with her light-filled joy and warmth, and slapped his face as hard as she could. For one moment they were trapped, the three of them, condemned in a flash: Ofer at the top of the steps, his rifle dangling, a magazine attached with a rubber band; she with the silly purple suede handbag that was far too fancy, grotesque even, for a trip like this; and Sami, who did not budge but nevertheless grew smaller and smaller, slowly emptying out. And then she realized how old he had grown. When she first met him he had looked almost like a boy. Twenty-one years had gone by, and he was three or four years younger than she was but he looked older. People age quickly here—them too, she thought oddly. Even them.
She made things worse by getting into the back of the car, not the passenger side where he held the door open for her—but she always sat next to Sami, how could it possibly be otherwise?—and Ofer came down and sat next to her in the back, and Sami stood outside the taxi with his arms hanging at his sides and his head slightly tilted. He stood by the open door like a man trying to remember something, or muttering a forgotten sentence to himself that had popped into his mind from some distant place, perhaps a prayer or an ancient saying, or a farewell to something that can never be regained. Or perhaps just like a man taking a moment of absolute privacy to inhale the glorious spring air, which was bursting with sunny yellow blossoms of spiny broom and acacia. And only after this brief pause did he get into the taxi and sit down, upright and rigid, and wait for directions.
Copyright © 2010 by David Grossman