Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

Scene Seven

He spoke of the fire and of the burning of the bodies, saying it was a moment he neither wanted to remember nor talk about.

The guy choked on his words. He wrestled with meanings, so that he could speak of how he experienced the fire that burned the last of the bodies and their remains. He produced the words like one who has lost the ability to produce words and wept like one who has no more tears.

(When I tried to write about this moment, which I did several times, I’d suffer a complete collapse. I’d be drenched in cold sweat and feel as though my heart had stopped beating. I’d be overcome by exhaustion, stop writing, throw myself on the bed and doze. This is my seventh attempt to write down what I heard. I drank half a bottle of vodka, sat down at the table, and decided to forget all the dreams I’d have when such exhaustion struck me. But I couldn’t forget one dream that pursued me for seven days and seven nights: We three–Itidal, Murad, and I– are sitting down. Murad drains his glass to the dregs and gets drunk. He pours another glass and drinks it, and the words come out of his mouth and turn into a rope that winds itself around his neck. The man cries out for help in words that come out as separated syllables, and with each cry the rope tightens around his neck and his words turn into a sort of rasp. Itidal and I never move from our places. We’re like people watching a horror movie. The dream begins and ends without anything happening: the guy doesn’t die and we make no attempt to save him. I’d wake up from this dream, light a cigarette, and open my eyes as far as they’d go so that I wouldn’t fall asleep again. Then, when the heat from the cigarette’s little glowing tip reached my fingers, I’d get up in panic, then fall asleep again and enter a world in which delirium blended with the memories of that night. I became convinced that if I went on that way, I’d end up dying in a fire caused by my cigarette, so I decided to stop writing temporarily, but the decision did not release me from the maze of fires that Murad described as he choked on his words.)

Murad spoke of those days: “Look, it’s true that collecting the bodies and burying the remains were the hardest parts of the work, but during those days there were two teams of young men working on looting the city and clearing the roads. You were a baby and don’t remember anything, so you can’t help me remember the names, and you know that old age has its claims, which begin with memory, and memory forgets, and the first thing it forgets is names. First, the name disappears, then little by little the features evaporate, and finally the person vanishes into his name.”

(I wanted to interrupt him to say that in that case the name was, finally, its bearer’s grave, and that when the name was forgotten, its bearer disappeared and the person along with it. However, I said nothing. I felt that the transformation of our names into our graves was the height of abomination.)

He recounted what the youth whose name he couldn’t remember had told him about the orgy of looting that took place at the direction, and under the supervision, of the Israeli army.

“The youth whose name we’ve forgotten said his team was made up of five persons and that its job was to clear the commercial establishments of their contents: ‘We entered the stores, whose doors had mostly been ripped off, and we emptied them of everything. We had to fill the small army trucks with canned goods, grains, flour, sugar, milk, everything. At first, we felt ignominy and shame. Why did we have to loot ourselves? Why did we have to rob our city for the benefit of these people? We knew that the trucks would go to Tel Aviv, and we worked with gritted teeth under the pressure of fear. After a couple of days of work, though, everything changed. We became full of enthusiasm and felt the ecstasy of thieves. We stole fearlessly because the army was protecting us and began to enjoy the looting.’”

“Screw us and what we’d become!” said Murad. “Can you believe it? You have to, because I did. That’s what puzzles me: how did we become looter and looted, thief and victim? It’s amazing! Did you ever experience such a thing? No one but us has ever tasted the moment of ecstasy felt by the victim when he flogs himself, and no one can understand the feeling. Even I, who am telling you about it, can’t understand it!”

The young man whose name we’ve forgotten said that after they’d finished the commercial establishments, the more difficult job began. This required joining the team that had cleared the streets and cleaned the military governor’s office with theirs.

“That morning, we discovered that a new team had been added to ours and we were given orders to the effect that our new job was to empty the houses of every piece of furniture. The Israeli officer told us he wanted everything that was inside the houses and made it clear that we must leave nothing behind. We were to go into each house, clear it out, and clean it; even the doors and the windows we were to unhinge and load onto other, larger, army trucks. This new job was more difficult than the first. You might say we’d become porters, and we would return in the evenings, our backs broken from carrying furniture, all of which the trucks took away. The work was exhausting, but we didn’t face any difficulties worth mentioning, and if we came across a bloated body in any of the houses, the order would come from the officer to get out of the house right away, and he’d splash kerosene around and set fire to the house, saying that it was better for the health of the city. We knew there were teams for collecting the bodies, so we couldn’t understand why the officer would set fire to the house; he could just have ordered us to take the body to the cemetery and get on with the looting.”

The young man told Murad that their group had faced two hard cases. In the first, the officer had almost shot the young man called “the Egyptian,” and the second case was his own.

“We called him the Egyptian because he was dark skinned, but he wasn’t Egyptian. He lived with his parents and three sisters in the church and never stopped telling jokes. When we went in to loot one of the houses, though, the Egyptian discovered that it was his own. At first, he led us through the rooms showing off the beauty of the furniture, which his father had brought from Damascus. We began loading up, as usual, and got to a large mirror in the living room, about two meters tall with an oak frame topped by a wooden triangle resembling a crown that was inlaid with Damascene mother-of-pearl. The Egyptian held on to the mirror and shouted, ‘No! I’m taking this to my family.’

“The soldier who was accompanying us inside the house didn’t understand what was happening. He went up to the Egyptian, said something in Hebrew, and left the house. I, as head of the team, asked the Egyptian to step back and let go of the mirror, but he just clung to it more fiercely. The four of us formed a circle around him in an attempt to persuade him that such carrying-on was pointless. I told him we’d looted the whole city, ‘so why not this mirror? In a moment they’ll make some dumb problem for us,’ but instead of us convincing him, his attitude started to get to us, and the mirror became a symbol of all the impotence and shame we’d felt during those days of looting.

“The soldier came back accompanied by a sergeant who spoke Arabic and who asked us what was going on. I replied that we’d decided the Egyptian was right and we weren’t going to take the mirror to the truck, we were going to carry it to the ghetto because they had no right to take it to Tel Aviv. I don’t know where I found the courage to say what had to be said. Sergeant Roni– I think that was the name of the blond, blue-eyed sergeant–told us to load the mirror onto the truck immediately, plus a lot of stuff along the lines of our not having any right to take state property. He raised his stick and advanced with the soldier, who also had a stick, behind him, but instead of retreating, the Egyptian glued himself to the surface of the mirror, blending into its image, and we saw all of us inside it–five Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers inside a Damascene mirror. The soldiers fell on us and started beating us. Our concern was to protect the mirror from them, so we too glued ourselves to its surface, the blows from the sticks raining down on our heads while we screamed and cursed. The living room filled with Israeli soldiers who beat us with sticks and rifle butts and blood began to flow. Suddenly the mirror started to break into shards. I couldn’t see clearly because my eyes were filled with blood, but I saw how our images in the mirror began to splinter and how the color red began to consume us, and how when the Egyptian fell to the ground, the mirror fell on top of him and broke into little pieces. Our image disappeared and we and the Israeli soldiers were covered with blood, which oozed from our splinter-filled bodies.

“We ended up handcuffed, walking down the empty street, our heads bowed, and surrounded by the soldiers, who had their rifles trained on us. We weren’t taken to the ghetto. They took us to an underground room which had been used in the past to store food supplies, in the house that had become the Israeli military command’s headquarters in the city. We spent the night there without food or drink. I was convinced they’d throw us out of the city the next day, but the morning brought something unexpected.

“And the surprise took the form of three nurses, who came in and cleaned our wounds. They put on them a yellowish medication that stung and that we discovered later was iodine. Our wounds were bandaged and we drank coffee that tasted like straw, made in the Israeli way, the kind they call boost caffe, meaning ‘mud coffee,’ which is a term for putting coffee grounds into a cup in the Arabic way, then pouring boiling water over them and stirring. The coffee doesn’t dissolve but turns to mud. Even though we didn’t find its taste to our liking, it was a good start, and we took it as a positive sign, which would have been right, if I hadn’t caught sight of that table.”

Murad told us about the table:

“You know that they’d taken the houses of Hasan Dahmash and Said al-Huneidi as their military command headquarters. In the morning, we discovered we were in Hasan Dahmash’s house, which was large, recently-built, and distinguished by high ceilings and a spacious living room where Captain Moshe, to whom they led us, was sitting behind a rectangular wooden table. Moshe began by telling us off. He said he could refer us to a military tribunal on a charge of assaulting the soldiers, but that Sergeant Roni had interceded on our behalf. ‘Do you understand what I’m telling you? Sergeant Roni, over whose head you broke the mirror with the intent to kill him, is the one who has asked me to pardon you! The condition is, though, that you apologize to me, because you broke a valuable mirror that is the property of the state. And to him, because you were rude to him. And Roni and I have accepted your apology.’”

The boy said that at a gesture from the captain, the young men began to leave the large room, without a word of apology passing their lips. He, though, remained frozen in place: “I didn’t move. I was staring at the table at which the Israeli captain sat and could scarcely believe it. Everyone left and I stayed. The captain raised the back of his hand and said, ‘Goodbye!’ and when I didn’t move, he yelled at me, ‘What’s wrong with you, boy?’ but I didn’t answer. What could I say? I was devoured by fear and felt as though my tongue had stuck to the roof of my mouth. The officer stood up, came toward me, shook me by the shoulders, and asked me what I wanted. With difficulty I managed to get out that I didn’t want anything, but the table….

‘What’s wrong with the table?’ he said.

‘The table…it’s our table.’ I tried to explain to him, stammering with fear, that it had been made by my father with his own hands and that we’d put it in the dining room; it was made from the wood of an aged olive tree that had dried out in our field and my father had wanted the table to be with us for the rest of our lives because the smell of olive wood wafted off it…‘That smell, sir, is our smell. You’ve stolen the smell of my father.’” (Did the boy really say those words, or had Murad’s memory rearranged them in its own way? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the smell filled where we were, and I too suddenly smelled the smell of Lydda welling up from my childhood. I shall never be able to describe it, for the aromas of memory are hard to put a name to, but the colored undulations in which silver blends with the green and blue that rise from the leaves of an olive tree under the sun took me back to the scent embedded in my depths, and I smelled the color–a mixture of the scents of the olive and the fig, the two trees by which God swears in the Koran, when He says, By the fig and the olive and Mount Sinai and this land secure! The two trees occupy a special place in the memory of my childhood, especially of when I was arrested at the age of six for picking figs from a nearby garden that was part of the land owned by my grandfather and was put in jail for stealing state property and spent a whole night at the police station before being got out by my mother, who explained to me that I had to think of everything as lost and start from zero. The words “lost” and “zero” remained engraved on my memory even though I didn’t understand. How can a child at the outset of his life understand that he has to begin from zero and from loss?) The boy said the Israeli officer ordered him to pick the table up and take it home.

“The officer told me, ‘Take it, boy!’ and picked up his papers and files and put them on a small table that stood out of the way near the wall. He said he didn’t believe my story: ‘You’re a nation of liars, but take it! It’s not your table, but I’m going to give it to you. Tell your father that it’s a gift from the Israeli army. Take it and don’t let me see your face again!’”

But the boy said that this wasn’t the end of the story.

“My comrades had stopped outside the Israeli officer’s door to wait for me, and when they heard me say, ‘I’ll never take it!’ they came in and carried off the table, and I found myself running with them outside, our feet barely touching the ground we were so happy. When we reached the hospital, Dr. Zahlan took the table and announced that it would be put in the hospital’s lobby because the hospital needed it, and that it would be safe there and would be returned to its owner as soon as the present mess was cleared up.”

Murad said he’d told us these two stories to delay having to tell the one he was afraid of. He said that every morning he still smelled the smell.

“Can you imagine starting your day with the stench of burning corpses? I’m seventy years old now and it still goes with me everywhere. Every morning I have to go out into the garden, even if it’s fifteen below zero. I go out to breathe in the air and get rid of the stench. The youth said they’d stolen the smell of his father when they stole the table, but my smell is the stench of death. What more can I say? I think that’s enough.”

Murad leaned his chin on his hand, closed his eyes, and a voice unlike his own, the voice of a sixteen-year-old choking on the tears in his throat, came out of him, and through that strange voice I beheld the scene and smelled the fire and felt that I was choking and had to get out of there. I try now to recall what the man said the way I heard it and am smitten by a cold shiver, accompanied by a feeling that I am about to choke on the smoke that veils the vision from my eyes.

Murad said, “It was six in the morning of Thursday, the eighteenth of August. I’m not certain of the date but I’m sure it was a Thursday. The Israeli officer gathered the youth of the four teams that were working on collecting the bodies and informed us that today would be the last day of work. He ordered the leader of each team to have the bodies gathered together in the garden closest to where he was working.

‘There’s no need to move them to the cemeteries or dig mass graves in the gardens of the various quarters. All you have to do is gather the bodies together in the place the soldiers who are with you specify. Your job will be easy and once it’s done, this unpleasant and difficult work will be over.’ The officer didn’t forget to thank us in the name of the Israel Defense Forces, saying that through this work we had proved our loyalty to the Jewish State and our worthiness to be citizens of that state, which had been established to restore to those in exile their right of return to the land of their fathers and grandfathers.”

Murad said, “What awaited us was more appalling than anything that had gone on before. Two days after the end of the work, we found ourselves herded into detention camps, so we moved from a large cage into small cages and experienced the torments of the prisoner and the pain of the exile. As you know, the condition for immediate release was that we shouldn’t return to Lydda, but would leave and go to Ramallah. Most of us refused, but I felt a loss when I saw Hatim al-Laqqis leave. With his cheerful spirit and amazing capacity for problem-solving, Hatim was more than a friend and a brother. He told us that Comrade Emile Toma, who visited us in the camp, had advised him to go back to Lebanon and had given him the addresses of some of the Lebanese communist comrades, and that he’d agreed because he couldn’t bear any longer to live in the ghetto as ‘a broken-off branch’–with no parents and no family.”

Of that day, when the sky poured down rain, Murad said, “Usually, it doesn’t rain in August, but it did that day. It was rain unlike any other. It went on for just half an hour, as though the sky had opened a faucet and then turned it off. We’d piled the bodies in the garden, and the rain poured down, and you can imagine what happened to the thirty corpses or parts of corpses that our team had piled on top of each other. When the rain stopped, the two Israeli soldiers told us to gather the scattered parts together again with the shovels and then one of them gave me a gallon can of kerosene and ordered me to splash it over the parts and the fire started and the air filled with thick black smoke, to the sound of the crackling of the fire. And we, my dear sir, had to wait while the ashes dispersed into the air and then gather the bones and bury them in a small hole.”

That was the end of what he had to say.

After a long silence, Murad filled his glass with white wine, raised it to me, and said, “Look, and tell me what you see!”

I didn’t understand what he meant, but I regained my voice, with difficulty, to say that I saw a glass filled to the brim with white wine.

“Do you know the poems of Suhrawardi the Slain?” he asked me. I said I knew he was a Sufi and that he must have written verse, like all the other great Sufis.

The glass was fine, the wine was pure,
the limits of each, in their resemblance, hard to
divine–As though there was wine but no cup,
 and a cup that held no wine.

I said it was beautiful poetry but I didn’t understand what it meant. He downed his glass in one go to announce that the meeting was over. I stood up.

He patted me on the shoulder and said, “Don’t rush things. You’ll understand soon enough.”

*

Sonderkommando

I admit I felt something strange as I listened to the popping of the bones as they were devoured by the fire: Murad spoke, and I saw. It was grief. Grief squeezes the heart till you feel you’re about to die and your heart bleeds tears into your eyes. Thus it was, good folk, that I discovered a new source of tears–tears that don’t emerge from the glands of the eyes accompanied by a gulping for breath, but that emerge directly from the convulsing of the heart, so that they’re as hot as blood and dig a groove down the cheeks.

My tears gushed without weeping, and I thought of my mother’s face and the grooves of tears on her cheeks that nobody saw but me. And I understood everything.

Now I can say that I have understood the language of silence that was Manal’s way of concealing her tears in the hidden grooves on her cheeks.

When I saw Claude Lanzmann’s movie Shoah, I was struck dumb. It was in 1991, at the house of an American doctor called Sam Horovitz, who had decided to return to the Promised Land and had taken up residence in Ramat Aviv. The guy was a model of courtesy and good nature. He called me up to discuss an article of mine about Umm Kulsoum’s song “Ahl al-Hawa” that had been published in Kol Ha’ir. Sam and his wife, Kate, were lovers of Arabic music and regularly attended video screenings of Egyptian movies. He called me and we met more than once. He declared his admiration for my articles, with their openness toward Arab culture, and said he’d never met another Jew so open to the culture of the region.

He asked me to explain oriental musical modes and the concept of the quarter tone, and I was astonished by his love of Arabic culture. He said he’d read Diary of a Country Prosecutor by the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, translated into English by Aba Eban (sometime Israeli minister of foreign affairs), and had fallen under the spell of that writer, who had managed to present the social issues of the poverty-stricken Egyptian countryside in the form of a detective novel. He had daring ideas on the necessity of Israel’s integration into the Arab region and showed sympathy for the cause of the Palestinian refugees living in wretched camps. Once, after a long discussion over coffee, I told him I wanted to ask him a question, but was hesitant to do so and afraid of upsetting him.

I asked him why he had gone there. “You love Arabic culture, but Israel is a project with a Western bent that despises the culture of the country’s original inhabitants, so why did you come here?”

He answered me that he’d come because of Claude Lanzmann, and spoke at length about the genius of that great leftist man of culture, friend of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He said Lanzmann’s movie Shoah had changed his life and was one of the reasons for his adoption of his Jewish identity and his decision to return to the Promised Land.

“Lanzmann was the portal to my identity. Umm Kulsoum, though, is the magic of the East that captivated my heart when I came here. Have you seen the movie?” he asked me.

“No. I’ve heard of it, but the hype here in Israel made me reluctant to go and see it. I don’t like blockbusters.”

“This time you’re wrong,” he said, and he invited me to his house, where I spent six hours transfixed in front of the small screen witnessing savagery in its most extreme manifestations.

“I’m bowled over,” I told Sam.

A movie unlike any other, stories unlike any others, and one tragedy giving birth to itself inside another.

Despite Lanzmann’s Zionism, his peacock-like personality, and his later movie Tsahal, in which he glorifies the Israeli army with a blind partiality informed by a loathsomely romantic attitude toward an armed force that hides its amorality under claims of morality, my admiration for Shoah has never gone away. I regard it as a humane work in which the content is greater than the form, and one that succeeds in telling what cannot be told.

Nevertheless, I feel perplexed when faced with fate’s coincidences and try to find an explanation for them, which I cannot. The coincidence of my meeting with Murad is understandable and logical: falafel, hummus, and nostalgia led the seventy-year-old to the Palm Tree restaurant. But what possessed Claude Lanzmann to bring a group of Holocaust survivors and men who’d worked in the Sonderkommando teams to the Ben Shemen colony, just outside Lydda, to tell of their suffering when burning the victims, victims who were of their own people? We may be sure that Lanzmann was unaware of the existence of a Palestinian ghetto in Lydda. Even if echoes of the great expulsion of 1948 ever reached him, it’s certain that, if he’d had to choose between it and the stories of the Nazi Holocaust that he decided to tell in his movie, he would have granted that marginal event no consideration. All that is understandable–or, let us say, something that I try to understand, having drunk that experience to its dregs, and adopted its identity; indeed, at one stage of my life I believed I was Jewish, the son of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto. However, my recall of scenes from that coincidental event fifteen years before my encounter with Murad al-Alami, who witnessed the transformation of the Palestinian youth of the ghetto into a new form of Sonderkommando, shook me to the core.

Why did Claude Lanzmann bring the Jewish men of the Sonderkommando to Lydda?

And would the Franco-Jewish writer and filmmaker have been able to imagine a possible encounter between those poor men and Murad and his comrades, who carried out the burning of the corpses of the people of Lydda in obedience to the orders of the men of Tsahal?

I have no idea, but what makes me angry is that no one confronted the French director with this truth, which was known to all the young people of the Lydda Ghetto. Maybe the tragedy has to remain enveloped in silence, because any discussion of its details would disfigure the nobility of that silence.

Murad was right to be silent.

Murad’s silence resembles that of Waddah al-Yaman. Now I understand why Murad severed all ties with me and why Waddah al-Yaman rejected my attempt to identify with his story.

It’s the story of the sheep that was driven to slaughter and never opened its mouth.

That is the story of the children of the ghetto.

I don’t want to draw a comparison between the Holocaust and the Nakba. I hate such comparisons and I believe the numbers game is vulgar and nauseating. I have nothing but contempt for Roger Garaudy and others who deny the Nazi Holocaust. Garaudy, who walked the tightrope of ideology from Marxism to Christianity to Islam, and who ended up a mercenary at the doorsteps of the Arab oil sheikhdoms, committed the crime of playing with numbers, reducing that of the Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis from six million to three million. No, Monsieur Garaudy, in the Holocaust everybody died, for whoever kills one innocent person is like someone who kills all humankind. As it says in the Mighty Book, Whosoever slays a soul not to retaliate for a soul slain, nor for corruption done in the land, shall be as if he had slain humankind altogether.

That said, what is the meaning of the chance encounter of these two incidents? Did they meet so that the banality of evil, the naiveté of humankind, and the insanity of history could be laid bare?

Or does their encounter point to the apotheosis of the Jewish issue at the hands of the Zionist movement, which transformed the Jews from victims into executioners, destroyed the philosophy of existential Jewish exile, and indeed, turned that exile into a property of its Palestinian victims?

I swear I have no idea! But I do know that I am sorrowful unto death, as Jesus the Nazarene said when he beheld the fate of humankind in a vision.

Elias Khoury

Born in Beirut, Elias Khoury is the author of thirteen novels, four volumes of literary criticism, and three plays. He was awarded the Palestine Prize for Gate of the Sun, which was named Best Book of the Year by Le Monde Diplomatique, The Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a Notable Book by the New York Times. Khoury’s Yalo, Broken Mirrors, White Masks, Little Mountain, As Though She Were Sleeping, The Journey of Little Gandhi, and City Gates are also available in English.

Humphrey Davies

Humphrey Davies is an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern Arabic literature, among them Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, four novels by Elias Khoury, including Gate of the Sun, and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg. He has also made a critical edition, translation, and lexicon of the Ottoman-period Hazz al-quhuf bi-sharh qasid Abi Shaduf (Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded) by Yusuf al-Shirbini and compiled with a colleague an anthology entitled Al-‘ammiyyah al-misriyyah al-maktubah: mukhtarat min 1400 ila 2009 (Egyptian Colloquial Writing: selections from 1400 to 2009). His awards include the inaugural Banipal Prize for Arabic literary translation for Gate of the Sun. He is affiliated with the American University in Cairo, where he lives.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *