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Illustration by Avi Katz
Illustration by Avi Katz
Necessary Stories

The Performance

In the fourth of Haim Watzman’s short stories for ToI, he returns to the shuk to consider how political messages do or don’t come across as intended

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

The little square down the stairs from the Iraqi shuk seemed like just the spot. There was a ready-made audience — the tourists and Tel Avivians eating at the trendy-authentic Azura restaurant on one side and the old Sephardi men playing backgammon in the dilapidated clubhouse on the other. The Jewish hawkers and their Arab workers at the stands selling greens and oranges, and the old ladies and student couples picking out produce, provided a low-level hubbub of voices better than any background music. Matan and Michal put out their hat, unpacked their backpacks, and began their performance.

Five minutes in, they got to what they called the first peak, where Matan, momentarily placing a Noh mask over his face, dripped fake blood from a baby bottle onto Michal’s eyes as she slowly pliéed and then collapsed into fetal position on the ground. Matan let out a well-rehearsed primal scream that stopped diners and shoppers in their tracks as he inclined over Michal and pressed the bottle into her abdomen. Michal jerked and convulsed and Matan emitted orgasmic groans. Then they froze in place.

A couple of American tourists who had stopped for a moment quickly walked away; an Arab teenager standing in front of the nearest stall seemed confused, staring alternatively at the performance and at his phone. “Mag’il, asur lehistakel,” a mother sitting at one of the tables outside the restaurant said, putting her hands over her young daughter’s eyes — “Disgusting, don’t look!” Her husband looked at the frozen performers curiously and, after glancing at his wife, made as if to get up to yell at them, but his wife motioned him to just stay put. Her daughter cuddled the belly from which her little brother would soon emerge, but turned her gaze back to Matan and Michal as soon as her mother removed her hand.

Illustration (above and top) by Avi Katz

The only person who really seemed to have stopped to watch was an older guy with more than a bit of a belly who had come out of the clubhouse just when they started. His mouth was open; one side seemed to be smiling and the other side looked appalled. He waited as they slowly came out of their freeze and were ready to begin the second scene. But the old guy came up and put his hand on Matan’s shoulder and whispered loudly in his ear:

“What’s the idea? That you’re both crazy?”

In street theater, of course, you go with the flow, and the audience is part of the show. So Matan placed his hand on the old man’s forearm, ever so lightly, and drew him toward Michal, who, having slowly risen, was now standing on her toes, her arms held high, as if she were about to take off into the firmament.

The old man giggled and looked around him. A few of his friends had emerged from the clubhouse to watch, cigarettes and small glasses of coffee in hand.

“Let me watch!” the little girl at Azura shouted at her mother, who was trying to distract her.

Matan, facing the old man, began to contort his mouth in an exaggerated semblance of speech. He placed his fingers on the man’s cheeks and looked into his eyes, then touched his mouth and the man’s. The old man understood and began to move his mouth silently as well. As soon as the old man had gotten the hang of it, Matan slowly swiveled so that both he and the new performer were facing Michal. Aiming their soundless speech at her, she began to wilt slowly, her hands first descending from their heights. She loosened her shoulders and let them droop, then slowly bent ever so slightly at the waist as her head became too heavy for her neck. Two of the old man’s friends snapped photos on their phone, as did the little girl’s father, over the protests of his wife.

The old man laughed, but not entirely comfortably. “What’s this about?” he stage-whispered to Matan, who put a finger up to his lips. In preparation for the third scene, Matan held up his hand to the old man, signaling him to stay put. He and Michal then circled the square, once first simply to catch the eyes of and engage the onlookers. Then, on their second circle, Matan put his arms around the shoulders of the Arab boy and brought him in. Michal crouched and smiled at the little girl’s mother and invited her in; she refused at first, but her daughter pushed at her and her husband laughed and told her it would be fun.

Matan and Michal arranged the three extras in a triangle and Matan handed the baby bottle with the fake blood to the woman. The two players circled the triangle once, twice, three times.

“What’s this about?” the old man asked the woman. “Shu saur?” he asked the Arab kid. The woman looked back in exasperation at her husband; the Arab kid shrugged.

Matan brought the Arab kid close to the woman. Michal modeled a rising of the arm, but the woman did not imitate. Michal touched the woman’s elbow lightly but again failed to get a response. The old man took the bottle from the woman and raised the arm that held it. “Like this,” he told her. “That’s what they want.” Matan held his hand over the Arab kid and the old man did likewise, sprinkling fake blood onto the kid’s head. The kid just stood there, indifferent, watching something on his phone.

The woman stalked away, returning to her family, giving her husband an angry look. “Jihad, wen inte?” called out the hawker at the stand where the kid was supposed to be working, and the kid, eyes never leaving his phone, slowly walked back to the stall, wiped the fake blood from his face, and picked up the broom he had set aside.

The old man shook his hand and chuckled. “Didn’t work!”

For the last scene, Matan and Michal seated themselves on the ground before the old man and motioned for him to speak. He began to move his mouth silently again and the two players sat in rapt attention at first, then began to shake their heads, then to raise fists in protest. They rose up and motioned for the old man to return to his friends, raising their hands and averting their faces as if to reject him. They then circled the square again, gazing at the people around, silently clapping. No one except the old man really seemed to be paying attention. No one put money in the hat.

Later, they drank espresso at Shuk Café. Michal was dejected. There had been no applause and no audience to speak of. They hadn’t even earned a few coins to pay for their coffee. Matan reassured her. “The real effect of a performance,” he reminded her, “is not immediate. The people who saw us had an experience, and that experience will surface and mold their lives in unexpected ways. It’s as if they have had a dream about the destructiveness of male oppression of women and Israeli oppression of Arabs. The dream will return to them next time they find themselves being perpetrators or victims. They will then see what they have not seen before. It is not up to us to complete the task, but we cannot cease our labors.” Michal nodded, skeptically.

“I can’t believe you made me do that.” The woman shook her head as she signed the credit card slip. But she wasn’t upset any more. It had been, except for the brief interruption by the street players, a fine outing with their oldest, who would soon have to cope with a rival for their attention. “What do you think they were trying to say?”

Her husband shrugged. “Whatever it was, they didn’t say it very well,” he admitted.

“Look, they’re just kids,” the old man said to his opponent, staring at the five and the two that the dice were showing him, the worst possible opening to a game. “Didn’t we do strange stuff when we were kids? Right here on this same spot, while our parents rolled their eyes?” He had no choice but to expose one of his men. “Remember when your sister and I put on our own production of Sira fi al-Mina right out there, with me in the Omar Sharif part and her in the Faten Hamama role? We thought the director, whatshisname, Youssef Chahine, would suddenly materialize here in the Iraqi shuk and sign us up for his next film. You gotta let the young people get their dreams out of their systems before they buckle down and work and raise families.” His rival shrugged, nodded, threw the dice.

The Arab kid swept up corn husks and orange peels and the sandy dust brought in by the desert wind. He frowned. A thought was in his head, but he didn’t yet know what it was or how to use it. Neither did he know that it was not at all the thought that the players had intended to plant there. He knew that he had to let it sit there, and grow, like a baby in a womb. It would come, it would come.

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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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