But where we live
we speak only of death and think
of somewhere else
-- Karen Alkalay-Gut
Ali falls asleep immediately after a long day of trying to be what she cannot be. She tries to be a newspaper reporter; but she doesn’t really want to be one. She just needs to make some money over the summer to stop being dependent on her parents. She’s exhausted from running all over campus observing things she could have turned into wonderful photographs. Instead, she has to write about them, journalistically, and with a slight accent. Ali can’t help the accent, even when she writes.
She feels she uses too many words when she writes about a biology professor’s wife who, on the day a tornado hit town, was sucking gasoline out of her car through a tube connected to a plastic milk bottle and then ran upstairs to feed the generator that helped nurture the unique bacteria that were her husband’s decade-long work.
Way too many words she uses. Pictures would say it so much better. But the newspaper has enough photographers already.
Ali falls asleep on her bed by the window, and I try to lie quiet on the mattress we have laid on the floor next to the bed. Suddenly sirens go off nearby. While the noise rages I lie thinking about Haifa and how one night, in order to fall asleep, instead of sheep I used to count the sounds of distant ambulances.
I can’t sleep listening to such a bedlam, but I can’t bear to see Ali awakened. So I leave the house to conduct an impromptu investigation. Driving around the neighborhood, I smell burnt rubber. The street parallel to ours is blocked, awash in the blinding lights of police cars and fire trucks. I can only get to the fire on foot, so I go back to the house and talk one of our sleepless housemates into leaving his computer for a while to keep me company.
One building is already a wreck. We sit on some steps across the street, watching the police and firefighters, smoking and talking about life’s unpredictabilities. Even a small college town has plenty of surprises in store. The night is warm, someone has just become homeless, and one journalist who would have loved to cover the story is, hopefully, asleep.
The next morning I wake up at 7:00 to drive Ali to class. If I don’t give her a ride she has to take a bus and so get an hour less of sleep. I ask whether the noise woke her last night, but she says she didn’t hear a thing. I’m glad and don’t bother telling her that she slept through a good story.
Even now, two years later, it cheers me to think she slept well that night — as if she had been my daughter instead of just my friend.
SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER, SOMEBODY’S SON
Two years later, Ali is dead. Nine other people have been killed with her. I wonder if she knew any of them. I doubt it. I know how much she liked to take solo walks in the crowded parts of every city she visited. This time the city happened to be Tel Aviv.
Ali: a Jewish girl, not an Arab boy. A redhead.
Her father used to be my father’s best school friend back in Russia. Ali’s real name was Alexandra.
My father emigrated to the United States in 1975 when he was twenty-three, without a cent in his pocket, leaving nothing worthwhile behind but his memories and a few relatives who pretended they were not Jewish. In the States he met my American-born mother.
Ali’s father caught my own father’s spirit of adventure soon afterwards and managed to persuade his wife and her parents to move to Israel with him.
It wasn’t just an itch to see the world that lured them out of the Soviet Union during one of its most stagnant, stifling periods. Once when I was eleven I was sitting on the couch with my father watching television, a feature on a Holocaust survivor whose memoir had just been published. At one point I asked him what “anti-Semitism” meant. He turned toward me, took off his silver-rimmed glasses and carefully wiped them on his T-shirt. Then he put them back on, got up and lit a cigarette.
”You don’t know what anti-Semitism is?”
I shook my head.
After an awkward pause, he said, “Here is yet another reason why I was right to emigrate!” Then he went looking for my mother to tell her how smart he was to be raising his kids in the United States, and how lucky she was as an American not to have to live in Russia, and how blessed - blessedly ignorant - his daughter was as well.
Ali grew up in Tel Aviv but visited us every year, always in the summer. We used to spend time in Israel, too, during winter break. But most of my mother’s Israeli relatives lived in and near Haifa and we never had quite enough time to get down to Tel Aviv to visit Ali’s family. My memories of Israel are full of my aunts’ and cousins’ food which I was always full of when I was there.
From her visits with my family Ali learned that a typical American Jewish family was comprised of a few hundred grandparents, cousins, in-laws, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews, some of whom were lawyers, some hippies selling stuff at flea markets down South, a few shrinks, a few Communists and one or two who somehow happened to be Italian and Catholic. Many seemed to be spending their lives commuting to and from each other’s suburban homes to spread gossip, celebrate wedding anniversaries, birthdays, all the Jewish holidays as well as Christmas and to watch Stanley Cup games.
Ali was used to our medley of a family and fit in almost perfectly. Only a few of my relatives treated her as a foreigner, though discretely, with studied good manners and subdued interest, calling her exclusively by her full, non-Arabic, name - Alexandra.
”Ali” was the name given her by her parents’ Arab friends who had studied in the Soviet Union, spoke Russian fluently and seemed too preoccupied with scientific theories to be bothered by someone’s being Jewish. But, for my father, Ali was always Sasha, and sometimes when he was in an especially sentimental mood, he called her Shurka. Both diminutives were Russian and both were used for females as well as males, he once explained to me. He pronounced either name with a nostalgic smile and with a funny accent that he managed to otherwise conceal.
My father played chess with Ali ever since she was eight years old, something that made me jealous, whether it was because he was paying so much attention to her or because of the time that she was devoting to him instead of to me. Often they switched to Russian, which no one in our extended
family understood. But despite my jealousies, I loved listening to them, as if they were total strangers miraculously transported to our house, like unicorns that would vanish if I so much as said a single word in English.
Ali’s family always seemed overwhelmingly small to me. Her parents and maternal grandparents lived in Israel, and her only aunt was married to a Russian in Minsk. The aunt had chosen to stay in the Soviet Union, not inclined to emulate her brother’s act of abandoning the glorious motherland. Twenty years later she regretted her decision and in every letter to her Israeli splinter of the family complained that her salary had shrunk to $15 a month and that she was starving. She visited Israel once, as a guest and potential immigrant, but quickly moved back to Belarus, unable to stand the Israeli heat, the constant fear of terrorism and the very alien Hebrew
During our own family trips to Israel we eventually learned not to worry much about suicide bombers and other threats that made that country seem like an erupting volcano if all you knew about it was what you read in the newspapers or saw on TV. The situation there was hardest for my mother to bear. She sometimes called her cousins in Haifa in the wee hours to ask if they had survived the explosion she had just seen reported on television. They would angrily interrupt her panic-stricken tears with, “Yes, Bella, we are fine! For God’s sake, it’s two a.m.! What explosion? Where? It’s across the country from us!”
My Israeli relatives’ typical answer to even the most carefully worded question about Palestinians was a condescending, “Arabs? Ah, they work for us.”
Ali’s parents often had Palestinian friends for dinner.
I remember how during one of our rare visits to Tel Aviv, at a dinner party, a handsome young civil engineer named Wasfi, whose English was as fluent as
his Russian, confessed to my mother that his brother had two wives. At first my mother was horrified, but her curiosity prevailed and Wasfi explained that his brother’s first wife was only sixteen when they married and by the time their first child was born he could see that she was a lousy cook and preferred reading and watching TV to being a conventional housewife. After they had three unwashed and underfed toddlers running around the house, he finally decided he couldn’t take it any longer.
His second wife was in her mid-thirties. As soon as she entered her husband’s household the rooms began to shine, the garden bloomed and the younger wife and her children began to gain weight.
At that point my mother swallowed uneasily and said, ”But why couldn’t he just hire a cleaning woman and a babysitter?”
”Well, of course, he could have. But he preferred a second wife,” Wasfi said, smiling in my direction so flirtatiously it nearly made my mother choke.
One night as we were sitting around the TV, watching the news of yet another bombing in Israel, my father muttered with disgust: “It’s all your Arab friends, Sasha.”
Ali turned toward him, as did we all, even my mother. We all knew he shouldn’t have said it, but it seemed wrong to argue with him at that moment: there were six dead, including the suicide bomber, fifty more wounded. No one we knew, thank God, but horrible anyway. There was the usual footage of people in shock, tears and blood running down their faces, other people in uniforms helping them into ambulances--there was an entire fleet of ambulances and fire trucks. Ali got up from the couch and on her way out of the room turned and said something in Russian to my father.
”They’re all the same, Sasha, when it comes to dealing with us!” he called after her in English, laughed bitterly and covered his face with his big hands.
A REDHEAD AND A RED CAT
Ali once told me how she had learned the English phrase “to dodge bullets.”
During her first year in college her next-door neighbor was David, a tall angular guy, and his red cat. David was a harmless graduate student in medieval history who suffered from an obvious crush on Ali. In his inflamed mind the coincidence of Ali’s hair being the same color as his cat’s fur had a huge, almost supernatural significance. The cat’s name was Benny.
Benny liked to follow David everywhere, and there was always the danger that a car would run him over. David said he had invented a system for keeping Benny from leaving the backyard. He would walk slowly to the back door of a neighboring building, Benny following close behind. Then he would dive through a doorway that led into a mailroom and eventually out onto the street. The cat remained behind, paralyzed with confusion.
”I call it ‘dodging Benny,’” he explained to Ali. ”D-o-d-g-i-n-g. We use this word when we talk about bullets flying over a battlefield, for instance.”
When I think about Ali I try to avoid remembering this story, even though I like it. Used to like it, I mean. Just as I used to like David and Benny, though now I don’t think I’d care to see either of them again. No more red cats and no Russian for me, please. And no Israel, or Palestine.
Ali is still dodging bullets up there. Maybe she manages to take a picture of me once in a while, when she’s not too busy.