When we reached the tent, the Arab who had spoken earlier, gestured for me to enter. I climbed down from the wagon and gave a little bow to each of the men on horseback before walking into the tent. It was not an elaborate structure, just canvas held up by poles buried in the ground. An old man in a white aba and red checkered kaffiyeh was seated on the carpeted floor beside a hookah. He had a weather-beaten look, darker than most Arabs I’ve seen, with a deeply lined face. A young man, perhaps Devorah’s age, sat beside him. His skin was just as dark, but his face was smooth, with a neat black moustache covering his upper lip. While the old man sat looking relaxed, the younger one was coiled like a cobra poised to strike.
“Salaam aleikum,” the younger Arab said. “Welcome to the tent of Sheikh Jabber. I am his son, Ali. My father does not speak Hebrew so I will speak for him.”
“Shalom aleichem. I am Tevye, from Kibbutz —”
“I know where you’re from.”
“May I ask how?”
“We have watched you come and go making your deliveries.”
“Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, thank you.”
Ali clapped his hands and a young girl covered from head to toe in a black robe appeared and placed a round brass tray in front of me with a small cup and kettle in the center.
I could barely see her eyes, but saw them stare at me for just an instant before she backed away.
“Thank you,” I said, watching her leave the tent and join the other women beside the cauldron on the fire.
“Shokran,” Ali said to me.
“It means ‘thank you’ in Arabic. If you are going to live among us, you should learn our language.”
“Is that why you know Hebrew?”
“Yes. My father sent me to a school to study. He foresaw the coming of many Jews and thought it would be useful for me to know how to talk with them.”
“Your father is as wise as he is generous.”
Ali did not translate my compliment and the sheikh showed no sign of comprehending.
“What are you doing here?” Ali asked.
“What do you mean, what am I doing here?” I repeated.
“Did you not understand my question?”
“I understood. I thought you knew that your friends brought me.”
“No, you do not understand. I mean what are you doing on my land?”
“Your land? I was on the road to the kibbutz. We purchased this land.”
“Fool! All of the land belongs to the Arabs of Palestine.”
“Is that why you steal from the kibbutzim?”
“Steal!” Ali shouted and leaped toward me, pulling a dagger from his robe. “How dare you say such a thing in my house?”
The sudden outburst surprised and frightened me, but I couldn’t do anything but recoil. I was completely at his mercy.
I could see Ali’s eyes burning with hatred and began to recite the Sh’ma Yisrael, hoping God would let me finish this last prayer before I died at the hands of this crazy man.
Then Sheikh Jabber barked some command in Arabic. Ali hovered over me until his father spoke again. He then slowly returned to his seat, never turning his back to me or letting the scowl fall from his face.
“With respect,” I said nervously, “the land where my kibbutz was built was purchased from an Arab who lives in Beirut. I thought he sold most of the land in this area.”
“The land of our fathers cannot be bought or sold. You are invaders who are trying to steal our land!”
I didn’t want to argue with a man in his own house, especially when that man has a big knife. Ali’s demeanor was such a contrast to his father’s. While Ali seemed prepared to slit my throat on the spot, Sheikh Jabber just sat motionless with a placid expression. Even when he yelled at Ali, he did it with the kind of authoritative tone an officer might use to give a soldier an order, rather than an angry one. I sensed he did not like his son losing control in front of a stranger.
“Ali, this is the land of my grandparents’ grandparents. It is the land promised by God to the Jewish people.”
“Our family has lived here for generations. I have never met a Jew.”
“And I have never met an Arab.”
“There isn’t room for both of us.”
“Why? I may be a little zaftik, but I don’t take up too much space. Look around you, we are hardly sardines in a can here.”
“I don’t know what this means, sardines in cans,” Ali replied. “I do know that more of you arrive each day and take more of our land. If you are not stopped, you will steal it all and we will lose our homes.”
“But we have no wish to take your homes. We want only to live peacefully in our homeland.”
“Our homeland,” Ali snarled.
I was searching the sheikh’s face for a hint of disagreement. I was hoping that Ali was expressing his own opinion rather than conveying a message from his father. Sheikh Jabber just put the hookah in his mouth and stared at me blankly.
“Would it be so terrible to live together?” I asked. The Prophet Isaiah said the lamb would one day lie down with the wolf. Why can’t this be that day?”
“That is fine, so long as you understand that I am the wolf.”
This excerpt is from Mitchell Bard’s new novel, After Anatevka – Tevya Goes to Palestine available now in paperback and on Kindle.