Our Place (go to home)
  NOVEL EXCERPT by Atar Hadari
   Our Place
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Our Place

Did I tell you how the theatre here got started? Just because you’re not in London, you shouldn’t think you’ve left behind civilization, you know. That is what I thought when I first got here, with Sarah, long before she was Gadi’s mother, but it was not the case. We used to do plays in the old dining room. You know, of course, the old dining room was not what you see here, the new dining room. There was no steel — stainless steel — on the roof and no windows, even with wire mesh. We had a roof made of tin — boiled alive in the summer — and steel bars on the windows — what we called windows — so the Arabs wouldn’t get in. But we put on great shows. I played a part in one or two myself.

Tevye, I played. The milk man. Though I never worked the cow shed myself. You know the play? When Tevye goes, with his family, driven off by the pogroms, the non-Jews, he stops and says goodbye to the cat, left all alone on the mantelpiece. They loved that in the dining room. It brought the house down.

I didn’t act, you understand. None of us could act. We didn’t come from the camps where they did theatre, music. Some camps, I am told, had interpretative dance. Ours just killed us. You just learned to steal fish out of the bottom of the pot. You didn’t get meat in the camps, you died. You had to get up front in the long line. Whatever it took. So we learned to use a long spoon. You see that sometimes with the members of the kibbutz. They want all the necks out of the bottom of the pot on Friday night and bring back to their table more than they can eat — it’s like that here on Friday night. Was, even before we had meat. Even when we had just the steel bars, people worried about getting extra bread.

But the Arabs, you see, had no such worries. They lived here, had their oil, their olives, sheep maybe. We used to get bread all along the way from Jerusalem and they would throw it to the ground from the wagon when it came and it was white with dust, not flour. We couldn’t trust the Arabs to sell us bread, you see. But then we grew our own olives and they had to come pick our crops. They have quick hands, you see. We couldn’t trust them to bake our bread. But they drove it. One of them did.

Mahmoud, that’s what his name was, drove a mule and a cart, all the way to Bet Shaan from Jerusalem — once, twice a week. He owned a little land. His grandfather’s, I think he said. Some olive trees, a cow. Three children, four — enough that he had to ride up and down, not milk one cow to fill their mouths. We trusted him. Almost. He never spent the night here. Why would any Arab spend the night within our gates? But he brought our bread from the bakers in the city, and we gave his children rights to swim in the spring, even when we fenced all this land around here in. They still come, once a year or so, it’s a long way now, the road-blocks and check-points stop cars, what can you do.

When Mahmoud lost an arm — I tell you — we rallied round like he was one of ours. I gave him the shirt off my back to stop the bleeding. (It wasn’t my shirt actually, it was Motke’s originally, but we share everything here, still.) So Mahmoud is lying there with his arm bleeding because the cart overturned when we were all so hungry by the time he came that we jumped all at once on top of it to get the bread. (I told you, it wasn’t finishing school at the camps, you learned to eat or you died of what you hadn’t learned.) And Mahmoud is lying there with my shirt around his arm, a pool of blood the size of Yavne under his side, and he says to me: “Do Jews not like Arab bread?”

I laugh and say it’s nothing personal, the doctor (our doctor, we paid for him) will be there soon. We just have to eat kosher bread. And what did we come to this country for if not to stand on our own two feet? He says he understands. The doctor came after some hours. It was a shame about the arm. But Mahmoud always said to the children he didn’t lose his whip arm. That was a boon, with the horse. Some animals don’t understand any language but brute force.

He wasn’t bitter, I can say. We were worried, his people would make trouble — an eye for an eye — some people — non-Jews — are not civilized. He kept his horse. Kept bringing the carts of bread — now twice a week. He had to ride now with the boy — to hold the reins while Mahmud threw the whip — but he did make a small profit, when it was two bread loads instead of one. We had babies.

When we did the last show, I don’t recall now why I wasn’t asked to play the part. It was a turbulent time in the kibbutz, a lot of change. The government had been set up. Independence. New flags. New song. The war, of course, when the Arabs didn’t get to throw us in the sea. The government said the Arabs would be safer living together, after the armistice. There were some hard feelings. Not between us, you understand. We always were on good terms with our neighbors, if we had to let them in. It’s just — after those Arabs ran away to Jordan to wait for us to die and then come back — some of us thought those Arabs that hadn’t run should be made to pay. So we suggested — those of us who were civilized — and the government — that they all move lower down into the same valley — and sell us — in this case the kibbutz — their family land.

I could have told him — if he’d asked me — what family land did my parents get a chance to sell? Out in the middle of the night with a suitcase and two bars of soap, into a train ride for three days and at the end of it ten piles — one for suitcases, one for the crutches, one for false teeth — finally, your underclothes. Then you went to the showers. Unless you were strong enough to work, and could get meat.

So I went, to explain to him. I was asked — perhaps because he bled his arm away into my shirt (though it was Motke’s, originally.) I was asked to go and explain to him why we couldn’t keep him on to drive the bread. And needed his land. And that was the night they did Tevye again in the dining room, and I couldn’t revive my heart-rending portrayal of the man saying farewell to his hearth and home and cat, because I had another part.

Mahmoud’s house was grassy. I had never been there before actually, though I knew where it was. The grass ran right up to it. The grass was deep, deep as your waist. And he was sitting, feeding cheese to his two dogs. Small dogs I think they were, not really much use to guard. His children must have been milking, because he was alone with his dogs.

And now I think of it, he really didn’t use it well, that plot of land. There were the trees, olive, sure – and the pasture for the cows- but did he really need the grass — all of that grass — right up to his waist — all around the house? Really, it was wasteful. And in the middle of it, that spring of sweet water. What a waste, just growing grass.

I told him, straight out, “Mahmoud, we can’t protect you from progress.”

“Have a coffee,” he said. “You want some cheese? I have this and it’s too hot to keep and the dogs will get fat and spoilt, but they like it. This is the cheese no-body bought. No Jews buy Arab cheese anymore — even on the non-religious kibbutz — why Natan? Are they keeping kosher now, too?”

I said that the government felt — would continue to feel for some time — that their greater good — his and his family’s — in fact their safety — would be best served by enclosure among their own kind, in a protective environment.

“Is that why Jews like to live inside a fence?” Mahmoud said.

He didn’t offer me coffee again before I left. He told me what his dogs’ names were, as he gave them the cheese. I met his children as I walked out of his yard. One of them I knew well, from the cart. I felt his arm. He made a muscle. “Muscles like margarine,” I said, “But rock hard, from the freezer.”

“What’s a freezer?” he said.

I said they’d have a freezer soon enough, when we bought their land.

We bought the land at a fair price. At least, as much as we could afford when there was nothing on the land but grass and a few olives, and now not even anyone to frisk the trees for fruit.

The spring has turned a little salty with the years. I think we drain it dry, or nearly dry, too often. Salt water came up from the deep. So now we use the water for fish pools — they like salt water, those big fish — and I told you, we learned how to dig fish out of the communal pot.

I saw Mahmoud’s daughter last time they came. I never see the son, she said he turned political. Mahmoud’s daughter — she’s now as old as I was when I turned my back on her father — she tells me she nurses him. He’s blind now, cataracts. Still got one good arm. Carves things for the tourists. But the tourists don’t come since the bombs. “Like the Jews all over again,” he says. And he laughs. At least she says he laughs. She doesn’t laugh. We had his blood all over the yard outside the dining room for a few days in ’46. I could show you where. They park the motorcycles there now. I miss his laugh.

I gave up acting after that great revival that I missed. I do not have the range, I fear, to play more than a fairly straightforward person convincingly. My Tevye, you understand, was a portrait of my father. He would cry at the smallest thing. Me crying over that cat I was leaving was really my father crying for the dining room china set when we left Berlin. He lasted hours in the camp. I saw his glasses falling in a pile of stainless steel arms and bridges and then I saw him raise his arms for another Jew to help him drop his shirt. I don’t cry, ever, in real life. It was acting, you see, to leave that cat. But Mahmoud laughed like a wild beast. I miss having him throw the bread down in the yard so I could catch the first piece in my hand and raise it high over my head and laugh like there was nothing else you could ever want.

  © Atar Hadari, 2013  

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