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All Clear

Salman Masalha

ALL CLEAR

Amir hadn’t laughed so hard for quite some time, and certainly not upon hearing an announcement from the Home Front Commander. With his forces alert on all fronts he had learnt on his own flesh, the country’s flesh, the meaning of the Jewish experience. The more he tortured her, the more pleasure she felt and burst into yelps of joy that cut through the silence.

When Nurit Tzur phoned Amir to ask how he was doing “in these crazy times,” as she said, there was a somewhat jocular tone to her voice, though it didn’t quite conceal her tremendous anxiety. “Don’t forget to bring your mask,” she reminded him again before she hung up.

He had met Nurit Tzur – Nushnush to her friends – several years earlier. At that time, the time of the popular Palestinian uprising in the occupied territories, she was living not far from his rented apartment in downtown Jerusalem.

One day Amir had gone to the neighborhood café where he was a regular, whether to meet friends or just for another anthropological session of observing the clientele. From afar, as he was still walking down the street and as he walked through the gate into the garden of the café, he noticed that a new girl had joined the table. Her laugh could be heard from quite a way off and she looked as though she were sitting with old friends. He pulled a chair away from another table and sat down next to her at a corner of the table that was free.

One of the guys -- Shimon or Nir, he can’t remember now – hastily introduced him to her: “Amir, Nurit,” said his friend and returned heatedly to the topic of the conversation. It wasn’t long before the argument died down and the conversation continued along calmer lines.

Unaware of the trap into which she was stepping, Nurit turned to him and asked: “I understand that you’re Amir. Amir who?”
Shimon, whose ear was always finely attuned to what was happening around him, was quick to tell her: Amir Cousin,” as everyone laughed. Shimon always had wisecracks of this sort upon hearing questions about “the northerner,” as he defined Amir, who had come from far away and settled in the holy city.
“Cousin?” Nurit wondered aloud, pursing her lips a bit?

“Not Cousin. A cousin, one of our Semite cousins,” Itzik corrected, eradicating with a single stroke the misunderstanding that Shimon had perpetrated.

“Ah, now I get it,” chortled Nurit, her laughter rolling form ear to ear.

Later, when everyone was lingering on the sidewalk before dispersing, Nurit related that apparently she too was going against the flow in that she too had left the Tel Aviv area and come to live in Jerusalem. “Jerusalem’s provinciality – I think it suits me better,” said Nurit, explaining her move from the trendy metropolis to the capital.

“Provinciality is a relative thing,” said Amir, as though he knew a thing or two about the provincial.

“There. Over there, on the other side of the neighborhood, that’s where I live now,” said Nurit, pointing, as they said goodbye, and her hand seemed to be caressing the treetops that moved in the gentle Jerusalem breeze.

***

In those days the word intifada had already begun to be naturalized into the Hebrew language. Initially, the media talked about disturbances, and as they weren’t ending and it didn’t look as though quiet would once again prevail in the occupied territories, the news people started using the term uprising. However, the sentries of the Hebrew language hastened to deplore the use of the Hebrew term, which is derived from the same root as the fancier and more right-wing of the two terms used for their war of independence, as well as the term for the Hebrew resistance and revival, and so as not to corrupt the youth. Thus, gradually the Arabic word infiltrated and dwelt secure in the tent of the Hebrew language.

A certain commentator on Arab affairs, versed in the Arabist tradition that is usually cut off from actual Arab experience, went one step further. He took the trouble to rummage in dictionaries and with a sarcastic grin smeared from ear to ear all across the screen, he brought his ridiculous merchandise to the viewers. Looking straight into the camera he opened his mouth and burst into an Arabist exegesis as though he had come upon a great treasure: “The original meaning of the word intifada in Arabic is: a camel’s orgasm,” explained the hyperactive commentator.

A few days later, at the usual table at the café, Nir turned to him and asked his opinion of the commentator’s linguistic “scoop.” Amir, however, with a typical wave of his hand, dismissed both the commentator and his discovery as utter folly, adding that he doubted that there is an Arab alive on this earth who knows this information, or takes it seriously. “The Arabs of today,” declared Amir, “barely know how to read those dictionaries that are no more than fallow land where rookie Arabists graze.”

During the course of the gales of laughter that ensued from the juicy discussion that had at long last descended from the meaning of life and other weighty matters to animal orgasms, Amir learned something about the orgasms of sea turtles in the Galapagos. Indeed, Nir had just recently returned all excited and enthusiastic about what he had seen on the distant islands.

“That’s where they should have established the Jewish state,” said Nir, trying to pour some oil on the flames of the argument that had died down.

“And who is going to do the construction work on the buildings there, who is going to till the land?” Itzik demanded.

“We’ll bring over Arabs like Amir and his friends,” said Nir, adding: “We really can’t live without Arabs.” After a brief pause, he continued: “And then, presumably everything will start all over again,” summing up the Zionist experience. More than anything else, Nir was impressed in the Galapagos by the cries of the coupling turtles that fill the primeval landscape. Nir likes to talk about sex a lot and about orgasms. He always said, half-seriously: “Politics is something people engage in and sex is something they talk about.”

“And how do you tell the difference between a he-turtle and a she-turtle?” Amir inquired of Nir.

“Search me,” answered Nir, adding in a challenging tone: “And what does our peasant and nature boy have to say on this issue?”
Amir couldn’t bear the condescension in Nir’s voice and riposted, to the laughter of the other people around the table: “Go to the turtle, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”
Nurit, who had also begun to sit at the table with the regulars, addressed herself to this issue that was heating up and added a new dimension when she asked with a smile: “Do she-turtles fake orgasms?”

***

The years go by quickly, apparently from the force of habit, thought Amir as he sipped his coffee, exhaling the cigarette smoke that made its way from his lungs back into the open air. Quiet had not returned to prevail in the land, because truth to tell it had never existed. And to all this was now added another threat, signs of which could be seen everywhere you looked. The packs and purses hanging over the backs of chairs had been joined by another accessory, a cardboard box dangling from a black plastic strap.

The fear of what might come was different now than it had been in other periods. Saddam Hussein’s threats to destroy half of Israel if his country were attacked hovered in the air. No one knew what surprises were up the sleeve of that man from Baghdad who had killed thousands of his countrymen with poison gases. In Israel they had already taken the precaution of distributing ABC – atomic, biological, chemical – masks to the all the inhabitants and had advised them to purchase masking tape to seal off the windows in advance of the trouble he might be sending their way.

Amir was uncomfortable with the hysteria all around but he was compelled, under not very moderate pressure from his friends, to report to the mask distribution center and take one. With a fair amount of misgiving he went to the distribution center, received a short explanation about its use from a young girl soldier and accepted a cardboard carton with a black plastic strap. When he got home he put the carton in the closet and did not even try to open it to see what was inside.

As the tension grew and the Iraqi attack seemed closer than ever, people were asked to take the cardboard boxes with them wherever they went. People were seen walking about town with a cardboard box dangling from their shoulder. People were seen crowding at the bus stops carrying the masks with them on their way to work or on their way home. Some people tried to conceal the masks inside plastic bags from the grocery store and some, mostly young girls, went so far as to paint their boxes bright colors or draw flowers on them.

***

Like a night borrowed from the stories, night fell on Jerusalem. The war was raging in far-off Iraq and missiles were striking in various places in Israel. “Why am I thinking about Shimon now, right at this moment?” Amir asked himself and he did not have a satisfactory answer. As the years passed, he found himself sinking ever more deeply into his isolation. He often felt as though a wave of a magic wand had detached him from the here and now and sent him floating in other worlds. Disturbing thoughts would come to him, erasing the here and now along their way.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Nurit, in an attempt to get him talking and elicit some irresistible charm from him in this situation in which she had found herself.

“Nothing,” he whispered into her ear, in a desperate attempt to not to reveal emotions that could cast a pall on the moment, and then he added a few worlds of encouragement: “I’m thinking about you, about us.”

“And maybe I want to avenge that liberated Palestinian girl who couldn’t bring Shimon to his knees, who couldn’t get past his Zionist guilt feelings about fucking the Palestinians on the one hand, and on the other crying about how they can’t fuck Palestinian girls” – this thought kept buzzing in his mind. Shimon had once confessed to him, during the first war in Lebanon, that he had not been able to respond to the flirtatious overtures of Souad, the daughter of a Palestinian public figure. “When the IDF is fucking Palestinians in Lebanon, I can’t fuck another Palestinian woman,” he had confided into Amir’s astonished ear.

“And maybe I have Shimon on my mind now because I find myself in Nurit Tzur’s bed, and she’s the daughter of Michael Tzur, a top Israeli officer?” This thought continued to distract him as his hand slid down her shoulder,
gliding slowly down the slope landing on a moving hip, like someone trying to outline dunes that stretch to the horizon. like someone trying to outline dunes that stretch to the horizon. “And what about my guilt feelings?” Amir continued to torture himself.

He surveys her soft body as his hand rests on her breasts and a warm nipple tickles his palm. He sees the whites of her eyes and recalls pure white patches of snow resting on the mountain peaks of the north. He greedily suckles the water of life from her mouth as though it were the Sea of Galilee and lowers the level of tension that is hovering over the land. His hand slides down the slopes of her back as though it were a bird circling and soaring on the updrafts of warm air rising from the green fields, then landing on the country’s narrow hips in the approach to a narrow plain that gathered at her navel. Far, far away at the edge of the bed her heel stretched taut like a spring that had coiled the moment his body reported the penetration of a force in the area of the sink holes of the Dead Sea.

Here the whole land was spread before him, thought Amir to himself. He just had to stretch out his hand to touch it, to fondle it as much as he wanted, to occupy it, to free it inch by inch with no resistance. Here she is, so close he could see the blue of her eyes, the gold tumbling on her shoulders, and now all her gates are open to him. Here she is, so close and yet so far.

***

Wondrous are the ways of this land, muses Amir. Such thoughts could surface even for no particular reason on another long night with Nurit Tzur, in whose bed he now found himself stretched out, exposed to her, and she exposed to him. Rather than slaking his thirst in her springs, satisfying his hunger on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that grows in her breasts, he finds himself redeeming the land inch by inch, and it seems as though he could go on knowing her forever.

Silence reigned outside. Quiet sheltered the house in the pastoral neighborhood and only regular breathing and groans with new notes rose from the bedroom she had turned into a sealed room, following the precise instructions of the Home Front Command. And as Amir was immersed in his war of liberation, suddenly the rising and falling wail of the siren was heard, rising and falling, rising and falling.

Nurit’s fears of this war were so compelling that upon hearing the siren she quickly pushed him away before he could perform the final act of liberation and bring about an all clear. She leapt from the bed and rushed to put on her ABC mask, urging him to put on his. As an act of sharing his fate with hers, he too donned the mask.

The mask changes the man, thought Amir,his eyes following Nurit as she walked over to turn on the television. Suddenly the both of them looked like creatures from outer space who had landed on a strange planet, on a stricken planet.

Not many minutes went by before the all-clear signal was sounded and they both hastened to take off the masks and breathe easy. However, despite the all-clear siren, Amir could still see the anxiety on her face.

“If heaven forbid something terrible happens in this country, will you keep me safe?“ Nurit asked in a somewhat jokey way that revealed her huge fear.

“Keep you safe from what? From whom?” Amir answered her with a question.

“Nuuuu – you know. You’re just pretending not to understand,” she pleaded as though he had the answer.
In a desperate attempt to divert the conversation to other matters, so as not to create conflict at a moment of togetherness, he blurted as though casually: “The Sabbath will keep you safe, Nushnush.”
She didn’t laugh and said, affronted: “Excuse me? What’s that you say?”

“I was just joking,” answered Amir, as they sat there embracing and staring at the television screen, watching the live broadcast.

“There has been a hit in the Central Area. There are no injuries,” reported the Central Command Spokesman, live. Upon hearing the reassuring words, the two looked at each other and suddenly burst into laughter until their eyes were filled with tears and strange and varied smells of rubber filled their noses.

***

Translated by Vivian Eden
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The Hebrew was published in Maariv, May 7, 2008

***

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