Jerusalem Interlude


Page 16 of 53


Ibrahim nodded with the single jerk of his head. “I must think. She is a jewel in the crown of the Prophet, and . . . I must think.”

Kadar leaned forward. There was a hint of impatience in his dark brooding eyes. He pulled the tasseled hem of his keffiyeh over his shoulder. “What is there to think about? She is a woman of marriageable age. I am a suitor who meets the requirements of the Koran. I can pay the price your father asks.” The smile reappeared and he considered Ibrahim carefully. “Unless you know of another suitor. But my offer will still surpass that of any man in Jerusalem.”

“A generous offer. I . . . my sister is . . . she thinks like the English. She thinks of things like . . . love.” Ibrahim was embarrassed to admit such a thing in the company of men.

“Is that all?” Kadar glanced around the circle of men. “A much easier matter to deal with than her price. A problem I intend to solve on the night of our wedding, Ibrahim.” He laughed. Genuine relief radiated from his eyes. “I will make her beg for me to keep her beneath my protection.” He lifted the hem of his black robe as if it were a blanket to spread over her. No one missed his meaning. More laughter rippled through the circle. Checkered keffiyehs bobbed with approval of Kadar’s words and wisdom about women.

“Perhaps my father will let her make her own choice.”

The laughter died. “Then he will be thinking too much like the English himself, and no doubt Haj Amin will wish to instruct him on what the Koran says about women.” This last sounded suspiciously like a threat. The family of Hassan lived on the very edge of approval. To fall off that precarious edge at this time could mean a swift death with a dagger between the ribs.

“I did not mean to offend, Ram Kadar. Allah knows . . . ” Ibrahim spread his hands in innocence. He was not handling this problem well. He was angry that Eli was taking so much time in his decision to cross the Street of the Chain. If he and Victoria were married, if Eli were already a follower of the Prophet, this discussion would be settled.

Kadar nodded slowly, deliberately. He was set on his goal. He had seen the face of Victoria Hassan and liked what he saw. She was single. She was of a social class equal to that of Kadar’s. Seldom had there been so much talk about such a simple matter as the marriage of a girl to a man like Kadar! He could afford more than one wife. He was a wealthy man in his own right, but he remained unmarried. He wanted Victoria as his first wife; then he would have others. He would marry her as soon as the contract was negotiated and signed. Kadar had consulted Ibrahim only to gain some idea of what to anticipate from Victoria’s father. He had not expected talk of love at such a time.

“Give your sister my regards.” He touched fingers to forehead. “Tell her I have seen her. That I consider her . . . a worthy woman.”

Ibrahim acknowledged the request. He would tell Victoria. Yes! He would tell her that there was no more time to play games in the matter of Eli’s conversion! Even now, things had become too dangerous for secret rendezvous. “It will be as you ask, my friend.”

“My brother,” Kadar said, leaning back and resting his hand on the gleaning silver hilt of his dagger. In his mind it was settled. Victoria Hassan would be his wife. The thought pleased him. The image of her face and body pleased him also—perhaps even to the degree the English might call love. But this last was not a matter he would speak of openly. When the business arrangement was complete and the wedding finished, then he would show her without words how he perceived her. That would be enough.

***

From his bedroom window, Eli could easily see the Dome of the Rock. He could also see the corner of the home where Victoria and Ibrahim lived with their parents and three younger brothers.

Every day that week Eli had run home from Yeshiva and bounded up the steep steps to the apartment above the Cohens’ grocery store.

“What is wrong with him?” his brother Moshe would ask when Eli charged through the front room with hardly a greeting. His mother would shrug and roll her eyes.

“Too much fasting.” She would tap her temple. “It affects the mind, nu? I’m telling you. I will talk to the rabbi about him!”

But it was not fasting that affected Eli. Each afternoon he sat at the window and waited. At 5:35 Victoria would return from her secretarial job. She would pass within his vision for the barest instant as she rounded the corner on the Street of the Chain. He would see her in her English-cut suit as she hurried home after a busy day of typing reports for the English government now housed at the King David Hotel.

Eli lived each hour looking forward to that fraction of a second when he would glimpse Victoria. It had been seven long nights since he had held her. His heart had not stopped racing since that night. Victoria had not sent for him as she had promised. She walked quickly past the corner and cast a look over her shoulder toward Eli’s house. Then she walked on without a break in stride.

The frustration of it nearly drove him mad. He could not study. He growled irritably whenever Moshe tried to talk to him about things happening at Hebrew University. He ignored his mother’s pleas to eat, eat, eat!

Why had Victoria not sent word? Yes, things were tense in the Old City just now, but the only tension Eli felt was from not speaking with her. Not touching her. Did she not understand what he was feeling? Had she decided against his proposal of marriage? Perhaps the call of the muezzin each day had drawn her away from his love, after all.

This morning Eli rose early. He sat at his window in hopes of catching a glimpse of her as she left for work. Moshe, twenty-three years old, was determined to figure out the mystery of his brother’s behavior. He lay quietly on the bed, studying Eli’s back. Perhaps Moshe would miss the bus to Hebrew University, but after a week of Eli’s strange actions, Moshe was willing to miss his class on Canaanite pottery.

Eli squinted and looked at his watch. The bus would be leaving from Jaffa Gate in ten minutes. She would walk past the corner . . . right now!

His sense of timing was impeccable. Dressed in a powder blue dress, Victoria walked by. Not breaking stride, she looked up toward the Sachar apartment. Her hair was piled onto her head and glistened like the black wing of a raven.

At the sight of her, he whispered her name. “Victoria!” It was only a whisper, but he sensed his mistake. Too late to call it back! He stiffened, feeling the eyes of Moshe on him. He turned slowly to see his brother grinning from his pillow.

“So that’s it!” Moshe crowed, raising up on one elbow. “My brother the rabbi is in love! So that’s it!” Dark brown eyes radiated a delicious glee. “Ha! All this praying and fasting up on the roof. Have you got a telescope up there to watch her?”

Eli’s face hardened. He decided to deny it. “I am sure I don’t know what you are talking about.”

“You said her name!”

“You were dreaming.”

“No! You were dreaming. Of Victoria Hassan, no less. There is only one girl I know in the Old City with a British name, and that girl does not go to synagogue!” Moshe was enjoying himself.

Eli wanted to strike him. Moshe was mocking him as if this did not matter. She was not just any girl! “You are meshugge! Crazy!”

“I am not the crazy one, dear brother! I am not the one running home each day and rising up in the morning for one peek at a girl! Especially not an Arab girl!”

“Shut up!” Eli warned. He stood slowly and pretended to rummage through his chest of drawers.

“Although I must admit you have good taste. Even at the university I have not come across anything as gorgeous as Victoria Hassan.” Moshe would not be silenced.

“You talk like a goy!” Eli said angrily as he still attempted to disarm Moshe.

“Yes? Well, that is what happens when a good little Orthodox boy grows up and goes to the university, nu? We should all become rabbis just like you, eh, Eli? Stick to all the old ways. Do not consider looking at a woman unless she is a Jewess who also grew up in the Old City.”

“You are mocking.”

Mos

he laughed sarcastically and climbed from the bed. “No. I am not the one in love with an Arab. I am not the one who mocks.”

Moshe was still grinning when Eli’s fist struck him square in the face. He had not expected the blow. Eli had not expected it either. Moshe flew back onto the bed and lay there with a startled look on his face. He rubbed his chin as he eyed his brother with a new concern.

Eli stood sweating in his underwear. Bare feet. He blinked and looked at his fist as though the thing had a mind of its own. “I . . . I . . . I am . . . I,” he stammered, not knowing what to say.

“I am sorry,” Moshe said at last. “I did not know.” He sat up. “This is . . . you really are . . . serious.”

Eli cried out. He ran his hands through his hair and sank down on the bed opposite Moshe. He cradled his head in his hands and moaned. “May the Eternal forgive me. May He . . . I love her. Oy! Moshe. I . . . I . . . I . . . ”

There was a silence. Misery. Unquenchable fire inside Eli.

“How long?” Moshe spoke gently now. He was convinced of his brother’s agony. This was not a light fantasy, and the implications were terrible to consider.

“Six months. No. Seven. I had not seen her in a while. Then I saw her in the souk. Buying vegetables. Cabbages. Oy! So beautiful.”

Moshe refrained from the urge to joke about such a less-than-romantic meeting. “Yes. Victoria is beautiful.”

“You noticed.”

“Uh-hmmm. You have good taste, brother.” He pounded Eli’s shoulder, hoping to lighten this moment of discovery.

Eli would not be lifted up. “I tried not to notice.”

Moshe believed that. Eli was the type of man who would try very hard not to notice. “Does she feel the same?”

“Yes. I mean . . . yes!”

“You see her?”

“Yes.”

“Often?”

“I have . . . we have met once a week. Sometimes more.”

This news startled Moshe. “Where? Does Ibrahim know?”

“It was he who helped me. You know . . . he is still like a brother to me in spite of . . .”

“In spite of the fact that his brothers are all supporters of the Mufti. And now anti-Semites, I hear.”

“That has nothing to do with Ibrahim. Or Victoria,” Eli defended.

“It will have something to do with you if you are caught with their sister! You know all this!” Now it was Moshe who was gripped with fear. “They are friends with assassins, Eli. In a moment they could have you killed and then melt away. No one would know why. Just another Jewish Yeshiva student murdered in the Old City.”

“We are careful.” Eli rubbed his hand over his sandy-colored beard.

“How can you be careful? I could pass for an Arab, but you! Look at you. Practically a goy! Almost a Gentile with your light hair.” He frowned and shuddered as he pictured Eli walking through the Arab Quarter on his way to a secret meeting with the sister of young Arab thugs. “Where do you meet her?”

“Different places.” He sighed. “Ibrahim is always with us. He knows how we love each other.”

There was almost an accusation in Eli’s words. After all, this had been going on for six months and Eli had not told Moshe about it. Only Ibrahim.

“So what now?” Moshe asked, looking toward the window.

“I asked her to marry me.”

“You . . . what?”

“To convert. She could do it.”

Moshe stood and went to the window. He looked out at the corner where Victoria passed each day. She was an Arab. She would never convert. To do so would mean the end of her relationship with her family. Possibly the assassin’s knife might be unsheathed for her pretty throat as well. Muslim fanaticism had risen to a fevered pitch recently. Such things were becoming more frequent.

“And when you asked her to convert to Judaism, what did she say?”

“That we needed to think. A little distance.” Eli looked up. His eyes were tortured, pleading for help. “I have to see her. You could . . . Moshe, would you carry a message to her for me? She is in the office of transportation. First floor in the British wing of the King David Hotel.” All these words came in a rush. Of course Moshe could more easily go into the hotel and drop by the desk of an Arab woman on some pretext. Moshe was clean shaven. He wore the clothes of the present day, instead of the garb of an Orthodox Jewish rabbinical student.

Moshe gazed into the haunted eyes of his brother, then out to the corner again. He was definitely going to miss his class this morning. The hotel was only a short way out of his way, however.

“Sure. Yes. I will take her a note.”

***

This first rain of the season moved like a gray curtain preceding the Egged bus up the pass of Bab el Wad. A deluge to compare with the days of Noah, it drove the Jihad warriors indoors lest their weapons rust. It came in waves from the skies above Jerusalem. Drops chased drops until torrents rushed in the usually barren ravines and scrambled over ancient rocks.

Inside the bus, the Jerusalem travelers rejoiced. The first rain had been late this year and so the season of revolt and violence had gone on longer than usual. The cisterns of Jerusalem were nearly empty and now they would again be full. There would be celebration in the Jewish section of the city tonight.

“Your husband has brought the rain, madame,” laughed a beady-eyed little man across the aisle from Leah. He sliced a hunk of salami and offered it to her in a gesture of goodwill.

She shook her head and mouthed the words no thank you. How heartless and unfeeling all these laughing people seemed!

“You should be grateful! Not even the devil himself would stay out in this! Not even for such a fine big target as your husband makes!”

This was supposed to make her feel better?

“He may be wet, but he will be alive!” cheered the man with the salami. “Yesterday I would not have said so. Yesterday they were sniping at buses all along the pass.”

Leah’s eyes widened as she looked out the window at the steep, rocky slopes. In places the road seemed to double back on itself. The water had no chance to rest, no rocks or plants to cling to. No wonder half of Palestine had been malarial swamps before the Zionists came. They had drained the swamps, but what could they ever do to the barren hillsides?

This was misery. What sort of homeland was this, anyway? What kind of bus company that made a woman choose between her cello and her husband?

Leah took out her pen and notepaper and began to write as the reek of greasy salami assailed her nostrils and the lurching bus made her stomach rebel.

Dear Elisa,

Maybe I am not so glad to be here, after all. If ever on this earth there was a place more desolate, more forsaken by God than Palestine, I cannot imagine it! Why, I ask myself, WHY would anyone want to come to such a place? The English have England. The Muslims have most of the Middle East. And so that leaves US. Raised in the shadow of the glorious Alps and the green farmland of Austria. Oh, Elisa! If there was any place else on earth but this place . . .

Her pen trembled as she wrote. The bus lurched around a particularly sharp corner and Leah’s stomach finally rebelled. “Stop the bus!” she shouted. “I am ill!”

The driver smirked. Nothing doing. “Open a window.”

Retching out the window of a moving bus in a rainstorm, Leah got her first glimpse of Jerusalem. A jumble of white stone houses set among the white stones of a boulder-strewn hill. A few buildings of size and substance were in the panorama, but Jerusalem was far from glorious. Ah yes, there was the Dome of the Rock. The Muslim shrine in all the postcards. Nobody had mentioned that the man in charge of that place wanted every Jew in Palestine dead. Somehow that thought detracted from the first thrill of seeing a postcard picture come to life.

Leah let the rain wash over her face and hair while passengers in the seats behind her complained that she should finish her business and close the window.

She ignored their indignant jibes and breathed dee

ply of air without the scent of garlic and greasy salami. Maybe Shimon had not had such a bad trip after all. She called up to him, “Shimon! Are you all right? Shimon!”

Either he had fallen off or he did not hear her. If he had fallen off, the driver would not have stopped the bus, Leah was convinced. Such a place this was! And such people!

She and Shimon had been idealistic fools. It had taken her less than twenty-four hours in the Holy Land to figure that out.

She wiped her face and opened her mouth to catch a few raindrops before she ducked back into the stuffy bus. She closed the window halfway and let her fingers dangle out through the opening.

The bus moved past a few low houses, and the salami man asked, “So. Your first trip to Jerusalem, eh? How do you like it so far?”

Leah simply smiled a reply. She had left her opinion of Palestine beside the road a mile or so back.

***

The Old City of Jerusalem bristled with expectation of the arrival of the Woodhead Royal Commission of Inquiry. Samuel Orde inspected the ranks of his soldiers. Bayonets were fixed. Gas masks hung within easy reach. Heads were helmeted against a stray stone or roof tile. Faces were grim and ready.

This morning’s march would cover every back street and alleyway within the circle of the city wall. It was meant to be a display of British might. Arab, Jew, and Christian were meant to tremble at the sight of such force. At the sound of tramping boots and bagpipes, they would stop their work for a moment and consider that such a show demanded that every citizen of the city remain on his best behavior.

From the citadel the men marched to stand in impressive columns in the very center of Omar Square. The voices of red-faced sergeants accompanied the precise crashing of boots against the stones. The company divided into four groups of soldiers, who then swiveled to face in four different directions. At the command of Captain Orde the skirl of bagpipes commenced anew and the soldiers tramped off to scour the Old City for any sign of threat.