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Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz
Necessary Stories

Back to Gaza

A drive north from the Strip is the setting for the first of Haim Watzman’s current affairs-linked short fictional stories for The Times of Israel

Haim Watzman is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.

Main image by Avi Katz

Michael gropes for the handkerchief he’s sitting on and wipes the sweat from the top of his head, the whole area encircled by the fringe of brown-flecked white hair that crowns his head like a withering laurel wreath. He’s back for his volunteer day of driving Gazans for medical treatment in Israel. The Erez checkpoint, on the border, comes into view. He hears chanting, a Hebrew slogan shouted through a megaphone, a woman’s voice, but he can’t make out the words. The demonstrators are in the designated spot, just outside the checkpoint’s perimeter. Allowing himself just a sip from the flask he keeps in the car door, he slows down and glances at his cellphone. Sister Nabila. That’s the name the Road to Recovery organization gave him. She will be accompanying an orphan who needs medical treatment in Israel.

He’s barely gotten out of the car when he catches the nun’s stony stare from behind the revolving door at the barrier. She’s got a little girl in her arms. “A rocket on Sderot is like a rocket on Tel Aviv.” That’s what the woman with the megaphone is chanting. “Let the IDF do its job.” The crowd takes up the chant, “Let the IDF do its job!” Michael shields his eyes and takes in Sister Nabila’s black habit and gaunt face, the only part of her body he can see, and wonders what she thinks of his shorts and frayed T-shirt, which maybe doesn’t cover his paunch as well as it ought. He approaches the barrier, shows his ID card, speaks to the soldier in charge, and receives custody of the woman and child. It takes them a minute before they begin to understand each other’s accented English.

“This is Bushra.” Sister Nabila moves the girl in her arms to an upright position. She looks no more than two years old, but has no hair, and her flowered dress hangs loosely. “Bushra, say hello to this nice man Michael.” Bushra whimpers, perhaps because Sister Nabila makes the words “nice man” sound ominous.

“She has The Disease. Treatments three times a week at Hadassah,” the nun tells him, as if it’s his fault. Woman and girl get into the back seat. They try to convince Bushra to allow herself to be strapped into the car seat on the passenger side that Michael keeps there for his grandchildren, but she screams when they try. “I’ll hold her,” Sister Nabila says, taking the middle seat. “Maybe after a few minutes she will agree.”

He starts the car and is ready to pull out when there’s a knock on his window. He looks up and sees the sunburnt face of a slender guy with sharp features wearing a lime-green dry-fit running shirt and carrying a small backpack. The kind of guy who looks like he’s younger than his 40-odd years. Obviously looking for a ride.

Michael doesn’t open his window. The fitness freak simply circles around to the passenger door and opens it. Michael mutters: “Jerusalem. Hadassah Ein Karem.”

“Perfect,” says the biker, or runner, or whatever he is, sliding his perfect body with its perfect life into Michael’s fifth-hand car.

“That’s where I work. Name’s Ze’ev. I rode down to the demonstration with some friends.” He holds up his backpack. “But I can’t stay the whole time. I need to get back for a meeting. I’m a physical therapist at the hospital. Have my scrubs rolled up in here.”

Michael shrugs. They set off on the long drive in silence, but Ze’ev is obviously not going to let that go on for long. Michael knows he should try to start the conversation, steer it carefully, but each time he does this trip everything he can think of to talk about, every question or comment that comes into his head, seems almost guaranteed to be stupid, or intrusive, or likely to be taken the wrong way, or now, with this unexpected passenger, to set off a mini-war inside his car. He eyes Ze’ev with trepidation as Ze’ev eyes Sister Nabila and Bushra.

“Kol hakavod,” Ze’ev says. “I admire people like you. What got you volunteering?”

Michael hates the question and doesn’t know how to answer. “I guess because of what might have been, and what might be,” he mumbles, without really knowing why he said it.

Through the rearview mirror, Michael sees that Bushra has her face buried in Sister Nabila’s lap. He’s not sure whether Sister Nabila is glaring at him for allowing another passenger in. Perhaps she always looks like she’s about to bring a ruler down hard on your knuckles. But then the nun screams. “Tawqif! Stop!”

Michael slams on the brakes and sees, in slow motion, how the passengers lunge forward. Bushra, still unbuckled, is saved by Sister Nabila’s strong grip, but lets out a howl that fades weakly. The car is stopped on the shoulder of the road, just after the red light Michael missed, and just before a bus stop. A reserve soldier in a dusty uniform is peering through a window. He’s got nothing with him, no rifle, no backpack. Michael sees the face and it reminds him of something from a dream of his. He reaches for the flask but, with great effort of will, pulls his hand back. He sighs and rolls down the window.

The soldier stares at him and does not say a word. A minute goes by; the passengers seem to be recovering, but not the hitchhiker.

“Please,” Sister Nabila finally says, using the word in the imperative. “Let him come in. We will be late.”

“Jerusalem. Hadassah Ein Karem.” He really needs a drink.

“Please,” Sister Nabila commands, but he sees tears in the soldier’s eyes and can’t leave him there.

The young man silently opens the back door and squeezes himself in next to Sister Nabila. “We really need to get Bushra into the car seat,” Michael pleads. In any case, the little girl wants to get as far away from the soldier as she can, so she allows Sister Nabila to move and buckle her. While everyone is busy watching that happen, Michael manages to get a swig in.

He steers back into traffic. Bushra is whimpering, Sister Nabila is glaring, the reservist is now sobbing, and Ze’ev the fitness freak has a big smile on his face. Michael is trying very hard to drive straight.

“Wouldn’t we all be better off without Hamas?” Ze’ev surveys his captive audience in the rearview mirror. He says it in Hebrew, but after seeing no reaction from Sister Nabila, repeats it in English. “Except our driver here, who’d be out of a job. If they just let the army go in and get rid of the Hamas dictatorship, you (he points at the nun in the mirror) could take a bus to Hadassah, or the girl could even get treated in Gaza. And you (he points at the reservist) wouldn’t have to be doing reserve duty on the perimeter.”

The soldier wipes his eyes with grimy knuckles. “But I’d be dead.”

“Oh, we know how to do it with next to no losses,” the fitness freak assured him. “We’ve got the Israel Defense Forces. Best army in the world. And the most moral.”

The reservist’s voice seems to be coming from somewhere outside the car. “I don’t want to be dead.”

Michael eyes the kid warily in the mirror. “You mean you just took off? You’re AWOL?”

“I’m out of there. No way I’m going back into Gaza.”

“Hey, get yourself together,” Ze’ev says kindly. “You’re not going to let your friends go in and do the work for you, are you?”

“Work?” The reservist giggles deep in his throat, as if he can’t breathe.

“Look, I know, you miss your family …”

“Don’t have a family. Don’t have a girlfriend. I have me. I’m doing what’s good for me.”

Ze’ev fingers his cellphone. Sister Nabila lets out a cry and Michael swerves back into his lane just in time.

Ze’ev’s face flushes. He turns to look the soldier in the eye. “If everyone was as fucking selfish as you are we wouldn’t have a country, would we?”

Michael waves his right hand up and down, meaning that everyone should just calm down and mind their own business. But the car swerves into the left-hand lane and he quickly returns the hand to the wheel.

“I advise you to return to your unit immediately,” Ze’ev commands. “Otherwise I will have no choice but to turn you in.”

Gavriel shifts uneasily in his seat. “But then I’ll die.”

“Maryam al-eadhra,” Sister Nabila exclaims. “Virgin Mary! Will we get to the hospital alive?”

“Give me your name.” Ze’ev, it is clear, intends to interrogate the soldier.

The young man does not answer immediately. Michael dares a glance in the rearview mirror and sees a face going fuzzy.

“Gavriel,” the man says. “Gavriel.”

The nun grabs the little girl’s head and swivels it to face the man next to her. “Al-malak Jibrayiyl!” She points. She sees the puzzlement of the two men in the front seat and says: “The Angel Gabriel. The angel of God’s mercy. He is protecting our journey.”

Gavriel is confused. “No angel. A warrior. A killer.”

Michael realizes that he, too, recognizes the soldier, but he can’t quite place it. A conversation about what might have been.

“I advise you to return to your unit immediately,” Ze’ev commands. “Otherwise I will have no choice but to turn you in.”

Gavriel shifts uneasily in his seat. “But then I’ll die.”

“You won’t die,” Ze’ev says. “You’ll be a hero.”

The young man looks helplessly around at the others. “So, I’ll die?” He motions to Michael. “Let me off at the next intersection.”

“Don’t let him out,” Sister Nabila commands.

But Michael’s eyelids are heavy. He doesn’t want to abandon the young man, but he desperately needs to get out and stretch and pour water on his head, or they’ll all be dead soon. So he pulls over at the next bus stop. Gavriel slowly gets out, looks around, steels himself, and heads up to the traffic light to cross the street and hitch a ride back to his base.

Michael empties half a bottle of water over his head and jumps up and down a few times before getting back into the car. He refuses Ze’ev’s offer to drive the rest of the way.

“I do not know what to believe,” Sister Nabila says. “But we must keep going. We will be late, and Bushra must have her treatment.”

Once they have picked up speed, Ze’ev says: “If we just went in and rooted out Hamas, things like this wouldn’t happen.”

“Only God knows what will happen,” Sister Nabila pronounces.

When he finally reaches Hadassah, Michael drops off his passengers. He tells Sister Nabila that he’ll park and wait for her and Bushra at the café in the little shopping mall next to the hospital. He’ll have a drink in the meantime, and then drive them back to Gaza. Doesn’t everyone, in the end, go back to Gaza?

*****

Haim Watzman is the author of “Company C,” “A Crack in the Earth,” and “Necessary Stories.” For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.

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